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More nurses and security guards are expected to be hired soon at Health Sciences Centre — part of the province's plan to deal more effectively with people who arrive at the downtown Winnipeg hospital in need of addictions treatment.
On Wednesday, Health Minister Cameron Friesen announced Manitoba will spend $3.5 million on additional staffing and setting up six new mental-health beds and two seclusion rooms for patients who need addictions and mental health services.
The move comes after HSC has experienced a spike in the number of patients intoxicated by methamphetamine and other drugs. Friesen said it's part of the province's response to recommendations in 2018's Virgo report that called for detox services to be expanded, including those specific to meth intoxication.
Eight psychiatric nurse positions and eight security positions will be added. Psychiatrists will now work nights and weekends at HSC, rather than just being available by phone. Six mental health observation beds will be added to the second floor of the psychiatric health centre in an effort to divert those patients out of the emergency room.
As a result, the government is projecting wait times will go down by about six per cent.
The seclusion rooms will be used for intoxicated people who need to be stabilized; Friesen said the government is aware some people who have used meth can be stabilized within 12 to 24 hours, "but sometimes they need longer."
The security jobs are being added "understanding that this is a place where we need to keep patients safe, we need to keep visitors safe and we need to keep the people who work here safe because this is a workplace," the health minister said.
The funding announcement is the first phase of a mental-health and addictions strategy for Manitoba, Friesen said.
"We believe that this will make a difference," he said. "We believe that it will help people to turn the corner in some cases; this can save lives."
Dr. Jitender Sareen, head of psychiatry at HSC, said some people take three or four days to withdraw from meth and need a safe place to do so. There are currently about 100 adult mental health beds. The additional six beds are expected to be available by the end of November and should be adequate to meet the hospital's needs, Sareen said.
"Over the last four years, the presence of meth-associated psychosis in our community has resulted in a steadily increasing number of patients arriving at hospital with police and paramedics who require a short period of stabilization," Sareen said.
HSC's emergency department was designed for 40,000 patients annually, and recorded 72,000 last year. The volume of patients has been increasing year after year, and they can sometimes be violent and agitated, largely due to meth, said Dr. John Sokal, medical director of the adult emergency department.
These changes, Sokal said, are expected to have "a very significant impact" for the ER, which currently has three secure rooms.
A daily average of 23 mental-health and addictions patients arrived at HSC's emergency department in 2019/20, a Shared Health spokesman said in a statement. More than four of those patients per day, on average, were brought in by police. In total, about six patients per day would be flagged for possible meth intoxication.
In 2019, 159 incidents required security to intervene at HSC, though that data provided by Shared Health wasn't specifically linked to intoxicated patients.
As part of Wednesday's announcement, Justice Minister Cliff Cullen said the changes are expected to take pressure off police by cutting down on the time they spend waiting in the ER with people who are intoxicated.
The $3.5 million doesn't include any investments in long-term treatment. The money is meant to deal with stabilizing patients in hospital.
When asked about the government's plan for long-term addictions treatment in Manitoba, Friesen said the government has already made almost $40 million in funding announcements in the past 11 months meant to deal with other aspects of addictions care, including adding residential treatment beds for women at the Behavioural Health Foundation.
Katie May is a general-assignment reporter for the Free Press.