Silent no more: Doctors slam province’s COVID-19 preparedness Doctors slam province's COVID-19 preparedness

Manitoba doctors are usually the quietest group of medical practitioners when it comes to speaking out against government policy.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 02/11/2020 (697 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Manitoba doctors are usually the quietest group of medical practitioners when it comes to speaking out against government policy.

They almost never do it — at least not publicly. They don’t like to rock the boat. When they do, it’s usually through one of their professional bodies.

So, when over 200 physicians and academics sign an open letter (and several top docs do on-the-record interviews with the news media) blasting government’s poor planning and lack of immediate action on the COVID-19 pandemic, the public should take notice. They should be alarmed.

If hospital capacity was a patient, it might have been at a Level 4 (less urgent) or a Level 3 (urgent) a few weeks ago on the Canadian Triage and Acuity Scale. If Manitoba doctors are to be believed, it now sounds like it’s at a Level 2 (emergent), approaching Level 1 (resuscitation).

It shouldn’t come as a great surprise, given the flood of COVID-19 cases in the Winnipeg region over the past few weeks. No health-care system is designed to handle that many people getting really sick at the same time. But it’s even worse when a hospital system like Winnipeg’s operates so close to the margin.

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS There are only so many health professionals to go around, and even less during a pandemic when many staff have tested positive for COVID-19 and more are forced to stay home to self-isolate. (John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Winnipeg hospitals operate at over 90-per-cent capacity during normal times. That’s high by any standard. In 2019-20, the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority’s average hospital bed occupancy was 92.3 per cent, up from 91.5 per cent the previous year. It was 98.2 per cent at Victoria Urgent Care Centre last year. It doesn’t leave much wiggle room, including during influenza season.

The system has the ability to expand beyond that to accommodate unplanned volume spikes. It can adapt quickly through a system-wide electronic bed-mapping system (which shows bed occupancy in real time by hospital in areas such as medicine, surgical and ICU). There are bed overflows. Patients can be moved around, low-acuity cases can be discharged quicker and as a last resort, non-emergent procedures and elective surgeries can be postponed (which is what’s happening now).

But there are limits, not only in space but in staffing. There are only so many doctors, nurses and allied health professionals to go around. During a pandemic, when many health-care staff have tested positive for COVID-19 (there have been 50 in just the past week) and many more are forced to stay home to self-isolate, there are even fewer staff available to meet the growing demand. Given the exponential growth in cases over the past few weeks, that ratio is likely to deteriorate further.

It explains why so many doctors have come out as loudly and forcefully as they have.

Whether Premier Brian Pallister is listening to those concerns is another matter. When asked Monday whether government failed to adequately plan and invest in pandemic-related heath-care operations, he called it a “false accusation.”

“We have a plan,” said Pallister. “That plan has been months in development.”

Premier Brian Pallister says his government has a plan, but it appears to be failing at the moment. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)

Perhaps. But that plan is failing at the moment and it doesn’t appear robust enough to handle what’s coming down the pike. Instead of acknowledging operational weaknesses (which, during a pandemic, would be no shame in admitting), Pallister put most of the blame for the current crisis at the feet of a small minority of partiers who he says are spreading the virus. He still isn’t willing to accept responsibility that government has dropped the ball in a number of areas.

That list is long: The province failed to ensure there were adequate hospital resources in place; it fell well behind in contact tracing; it did not ensure personal care homes were adequately staffed. And its abysmal communication strategy on public health orders has caused mass confusion.

The Pallister government disbanded its pandemic incident command centre prematurely (and is only now reconstituting it). Also, we haven’t seen the involvement of the province’s Emergency Measures Organization during this pandemic, even though it specializes in coordinating government efforts during public emergencies.

It’s no wonder physicians are now ringing the alarm bells.

Tom Brodbeck

Tom Brodbeck

Tom has been covering Manitoba politics since the early 1990s and joined the Winnipeg Free Press news team in 2019.

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