A Winkler physician is concerned the region could lose doctors if attitudes towards COVID-19 and vaccination in the community don't change.
"I was getting a sense from many of my colleagues that they were getting quite frustrated with the lack of support from the patients in our community," Dr. Eric Lane said Monday, describing the current situation as a "low point" in his more than three decades of work.
"I was getting concerned that a number were looking at potentially moving away and going to a place where their advice was taken more seriously."
After 32 years working at Winkler’s CW Wiebe Medical Centre and Boundary Trails Health Centre, Lane decided to speak out publicly in a letter published in the Winkler Morden Voice last Thursday, pleading with residents to take doctors seriously — and protect one another’s health — as burnout and spiking COVID-19 cases take hold of the Southern Health region.
"After attending births, deaths, cancers, and other health needs, most of my colleagues and I feel that our advice is no longer valued," Lane wrote. "From some, our advice is despised."
The vaccination rates in Winkler and the surrounding Rural Municipality of Stanley are the lowest in Manitoba, according to public health data. Just over 40 per cent of Winkler residents and less than 25 per cent of Stanley residents have received at least one dose of the vaccine as the region is experiencing the highest per-capita infection rate in the province.
There are currently 18 COVID-19 patients in hospital and three in intensive care in the Southern Health — region.
"Did you know most of the physicians in this community are not from here?" Lane wrote in the letter. "Most have very few long-term ties here and the current climate has many weighing up their future options. It would be tragic for us to lose what has been achieved thus far."
While he isn’t sure how many physicians are thinking about walking away, Lane noted it would not take many for the health-care system to feel a serious crunch.
"It was, in some way, trying to wake people up to think about more than themselves," he said Monday, referring to the letter.
In his early days serving the Winkler area, staff shortages meant he and other physicians were on call 24/7. Progress has been made bolstering the region's health system since then, but a mass exodus would put significant strain on remaining doctors, and could have a "ripple effect" on other professions in the community, he said.
Winkler Mayor Martin Harder said he read Lane's letter, and is urging frustrated doctors to stay in the area and help change attitudes.
"The community does not survive without medical profession in place," said Harder. "There are people here who have expressed some concern and I’m not aware of any who have left yet, but as a community leader I would urge them not to even consider it."
Lane’s letter was followed by a social media post Saturday from Winkler Police Chief Ryan Hunt decrying the community’s growing divide over masks and vaccines.
"Something has to change. The anger and resentment that we are seeing in our community are unacceptable," he wrote, adding rule-breakers — including those who interfere with law enforcement — should expect to be ticketed.
On Monday morning, Premier Kelvin Goertzen said he read Hunt’s post on Facebook and hoped to reach out to the police chief soon to speak about his concerns.
"You can feel his frustration," Goertzen said, speaking after a news conference at the Royal Aviation Museum of Western Canada. "The work that he and other enforcement officers are doing, it’s important work, it’s to keep people safe, and they shouldn’t… feel their safety is compromised as a result of that."
Goertzen also responded to the concerns Lane wrote about in his letter, saying he is "concerned about health-care staff across the system."
"There is significant pressure. We’re seeing burnout within the system, and then you add onto that the workload, that mental strain, of getting a lot of pressure from people in the community who don’t necessarily agree with what doctors are recommending," the premier said.
"Those who don’t agree with medical advice, or the advice from the province, you’re going to express your opinion, and we understand that, but don’t express it in a way that’s hurtful, that’s threatening, that’s demeaning. These doctors are the same doctors who have delivered your babies in the past… the same people who cared for your communities for decades and decades. That level of concern hasn’t changed for them."
— with files from Melissa Martin
Julia-Simone Rutgers is a general-assignment reporter.