After asking the federal government to send between 15 and 30 ICU nurses to help deal with the COVID-19 hospital crisis in the coming weeks, Manitoba Premier Heather Stefanson says she’d also consider asking the military for additional help.

After asking the federal government to send between 15 and 30 ICU nurses to help deal with the COVID-19 hospital crisis in the coming weeks, Manitoba Premier Heather Stefanson says she’d also consider asking the military for additional help.

"I don’t think anything’s off the table," Stefanson told reporters in a scrum Tuesday at the legislature.

On the weekend, 11 front-line and critical care doctors wrote an open letter urging the provincial government to ask the Canadian Armed Forces to send nurses to help out in Winnipeg ICUs. The province has made a request to the federal government but not the military.

"Obviously, we’ll look at what’s needed at any individual time," said Stefanson, who thanked the doctors for "their service and their advice."

"The ask of the federal government is an interim measure" while the province boosts nurse recruitment and retention, the premier said, adding she hoped to get a response from the federal government soon.

Late Tuesday, a federal spokeswoman said: "Our officials are working with their provincial counterparts to process the request as quickly as possible."

The premier couldn’t say if the province may also ask the military for help.

"We can’t predict the future," Stefanson said of the COVID-19 pandemic and the situation in hospital ICUs.

"We have no idea where this might be going," she said. "We’ll always make decisions based on evidence and what is needed and patient safety."

The official Opposition said the province shouldn’t wait to ask for additional help.

"Action needs to be taken immediately," NDP health critic Uzoma Asagwara said Tuesday, after the NDP shared a critical care bed tracker showing ICUs at near-capacity with few empty beds, a number of patients waiting to be admitted in, and even more housed "off-unit."

Very few if any are able to be transferred because they are so critically ill, and units have had to drop the one-nurse-per-patient ratio, the tracker indicated.

"We need as much help as we can get — which is why the doctors made that call for the military, which is why we’re making the call for the military," Asagwara told reporters.

"We shouldn’t have to get to the point here in Manitoba where our health-care system outright collapses before the premier takes that step and asks for help and gets that here to Manitoba," said Asagwara, a former nurse.

It will take more than that, however, to rebuild the system, Manitoba Nurses Union president Darlene Jackson said: "Manitoba could use at least 1,000 more nurses across a broad range of specialties to get this system back to being able to provide the standards of care other provinces enjoy."

Nursing vacancies range anywhere from 25 per cent in some regions of Manitoba to the high teens everywhere else, she said Tuesday in an email.

Manitobans are now seeing the "human cost" of the province’s 2016 reorganization and restructuring of the health-care system "in the most tragic and intense ways," Jackson said.

Stefanson said her government is working with the union and the provincial college of nurses in recruiting and retaining more nurses "toward that end goal of ensuring that patients get the care they need when they need it."

The province announced Tuesday it would spend up to $4.3 million for 37 additional nurse training seats at three campuses of the University College of the North. The funding will support the expansion by enabling UCN to invest in equipment, classroom renovations and instructors to support the additional seats.

Currently there are more than 800 nursing seats in Manitoba offered at six publicly funded post-secondary institutions.

For now, Stefanson asked for patience and for all eligible Manitobans to get vaccinated against COVID-19.

She said the government is looking into making rapid test kits more readily available as well the antiviral pill (molnupiravir) that can reduce the severity of the illness.

"These are all tools in our toolbox," the premier said. "When we bring these all in and we work together that could help reduce hospitalization in ICUs."

However, she wouldn’t rule out having to again send ICU patients for care out of province.

"We will always do whatever it takes to ensure that patient safety comes first," she said. "Obviously, we want to keep them here."

carol.sanders@freepress.mb.ca

Carol Sanders

Carol Sanders
Legislature reporter

After 20 years of reporting on the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home, Carol moved to the legislature bureau in early 2020.