A retired doctor is sounding the alarm about a lack of sanitation and physical distancing in St. Boniface Hospital’s emergency department waiting room.

Winnipeg Free Press

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A retired doctor is sounding the alarm about a lack of sanitation and physical distancing in St. Boniface Hospital’s emergency department waiting room.

Philippe Erhard, a former family physician and sports injury doctor at Pan Am Clinic, visited the Winnipeg ER on April 13.

During his six-hour wait, staff never wiped down the seating area, and physical distancing amid the COVID-19 pandemic wasn’t possible because of the room’s layout, Erhard said.

"You have no choice but to sit beside everybody else. You have over 15 people sitting in the packed waiting room, not social distancing," the 68-year-old said. "There’s no sterilization of seats if somebody leaves, and somebody else sits there."

Erhard bounced from one part of the room to another as spots opened up to distance himself from other patients. Eventually, he settled into a chair beside a garbage can.

Similar stories have surfaced over the past few months from patients disgruntled by the lack of safety measures at the St. B emergency room, one of three in Winnipeg. The department serves more than 115 patients each day, according to the hospital’s website.

"We acknowledge that physical distancing is not always possible when the ED is very busy," Micheline St-Hilaire, director of corporate affairs and communications, said in an email response to the Free Press.

"Our priority with our physically limited waiting room, based on pre-pandemic standards, is to provide the necessary care and supervision to our patients."

The email said emergency department staff provide patients with medical-grade masks and encourage them to perform hand hygiene.

Erhard confirmed staff followed these procedures upon his arrival, and said he was satisfied with safety protocol until he reached the waiting room.

On April 22, Erhard sent an email detailing his experience to several health authorities, including St. Boniface Hospital administration, chief provincial public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin, and Doctors Manitoba.

The letter pointed to the recent spike in contagious novel coronavirus variants as a particular cause for concern, and called on the hospital to correct the situation as soon as possible.

"I was told, ‘That, well, you have to understand that we are in a pandemic, there’s COVID, the emergency is busy,’ and I said, well, that’s exactly the point," Erhard said.

He added sitting in a group of people — even if everyone is donning masks — creates an elevated and unnecessary transmission risk.

"If a restaurant will do these things, they will be fined and closed... in no time," he said.

Erhard said a hospital representative promptly followed up, acknowledged his concerns, apologized for the conditions, and explained the hospital has plans to expand the emergency department.

"I said, ‘That’s fine, but I don’t see any sign of construction there,’" Erhard said. "It’s not good if they build a new emergency in a year or two... patients are at risk every single day."

In December 2019, the provincial government announced funding to "extensively renovate" the St. Boniface Hospital ER and expand it to 50,000 square feet. The current department is a fraction of the size, at roughly 16,550 square feet.

"Plans are underway for the expansion and redevelopment of a new emergency department at St. Boniface Hospital," St-Hilaire wrote. "The pandemic has given us tremendous insight into the layout needed for an ED’s optimal functioning."