WINNIPEG — After a break-neck spring ferrying H1N1 victims from northern Manitoba to Winnipeg for treatment, Manitoba's medevac players are gearing up for an autumn flying season that could be even busier.
Manitoba's Health Department said it's too early to predict the extent of the virus's reach in the short term but it's preparing for a second wave of H1N1 in the fall.
"We expect we need to be prepared for something more intense than we saw in the spring," said Jean Cox, the department's executive director of rural and northern regional support.
As of last week, more than 850 Manitobans had been diagnosed with the disease, including seven who died.The predictions have the province's four medevac carriers making sure they have the staff and aircraft ready for takeoff should even modest pandemic forecasts become reality.
Fast Air Medevac added a third King Air 200 to its dedicated air ambulance fleet in the spring and is prepared to add another if the demand calls for it.
"A fourth plane is coming, it's just a matter of timing. We could turn (the deal around) relatively quickly," said Tim Hague, director of air ambulance services for the Fast Air Limited subsidiary.
"Our numbers increased dramatically in the spring. We flew more missions in June than in any month in the six years we've been in (the medevac) business."
Hague said Fast Air Medevac called in extra staff in the spring to handle the unprecedented demand and has its people on alert in case the same scenario materializes this fall.
"We have an ongoing commitment to keep the aircraft in the air around the clock. It's a huge concern in Manitoba because our northern communities got hit so terribly hard. Our staffing levels have been really good. We've been fortunate nobody has been sick," he said.
SkyNorth Air Ltd. recently increased its fleet, bumping up its number of King Airs to three. Vice-President Greg Psooy said it is ramping up its staff and equipment to ensure it's ready if the calls come.
To improve the chances that its pilots and medical personnel remain healthy, he said in-flight staff wear face masks and protective gloves and the plane is scrubbed down with disinfectant after every trip.
Neither Perimeter Aviation nor Missinippi Air plan to add planes to their fleets but they're both prepared to use charter aircraft and employees into medevac service if the need arises.
Mark Wehrle, president of Perimeter, said it recently recruited a pair of nurses and three paramedic workers from outside Manitoba to ensure it will be able to fully staff its Metro II planes in the fall.
"The demand for nurses outside of air ambulance puts a strain on us. When they're not flying, they're working in a hospital or a nursing station. Having them available will be our biggest challenge. We're recruiting 12 months of the year," he said, noting Perimeter has five aircraft dedicated to medevac but can call upon another dozen should its capacity be reached.
Lena Thorne, chief flight nurse for The Pas-based Missinippi, said its two medevac planes can take five or six trips in a 24-hour period. It also has 10 other planes that could be assigned to medevac duty on short notice, she said.
The medevac market
THERE are 150,000 people in northern Manitoba who rely on air ambulances to get the health care they need. Here's how the province's four medevac providers are equipped to handle an expected surge in H1N1 this fall.
Fast Air Medevac: The Winnipeg-based carrier recently added a third King Air 200 to its medevac fleet and is planning to add a fourth.
Perimeter Aviation: The biggest regional carrier in the province has five Metro IIs providing medevac services but it can tap into another 12 planes if need be.
SkyNorth Air: The Winnipeg-based carrier has three King Air A100s providing air ambulance services.
Missinippi Airways: Based in The Pas, it has two King Air B200s dedicated to medevac but it can also use 10 other planes in its fleet if required.