OTTAWA — Manitoba should brace for a quadrupling of its daily COVID-19 hospitalizations, which are already abnormally high, according to fresh federal modelling.
"I’m terrified. I don’t know what else to say," said Dr. Doug Eyolfson, ahead of his shift on the ICU ward at Grace Hospital in Winnipeg.
In modelling released Friday morning, the Public Health Agency of Canada predicts a peak of roughly 200 daily hospitalizations this month in Manitoba.
So far, the highest number of COVID-19 hospitalizations in a single day has been 58 (logged Jan. 10).
Over the last week, there was an average of 42 inpatient admissions related to COVID-19 each day. One month ago, the daily average stood at 14.
"How can we have those numbers of people needing hospital admission, and not have someone die because we can’t provide proper care for them? Despite everyone’s best efforts, it’s absolutely unmanageable," said Eyolfson, a former Liberal MP.
Many novel coronavirus patients require weeks of care. In the past seven days, there has been a 56 per cent jump in the cumulative number in hospital with COVID-19.
The result is a system that’s been overflowing for weeks, according to dozens of Winnipeg doctors.
"As it is, when new patients need to be admitted, we don’t know where to put them," Eyolfson said. "The emergency department is full and people are on stretchers in the hallways."
He echoed colleagues urging Manitoba to come up with a triage protocol, which would dictate how to decide who won’t get life-saving care when resources are stretched too thin.
"The province refuses to triage protocol, and leaves the decisions — and the risks and the moral injury — up to the physicians," said Eyolfson, adding people are already dying due to postponed surgeries and diagnostic tests amid the pandemic.
"We’re already triaging, although it’s not obvious."
Dr. Eric Jacobsohn, a physician in the cardiac surgical ICU at St. Boniface Hospital, said the last few days have brought a "tremendous uptick" in the number of intensive-care patients being admitted.
"It would not be surprising if heart surgery has to be curtailed in the next week due to the increasing need for ICU beds," he said in an interview Thursday.
Jacobsohn said heart-surgery patients often need an ICU bed to recover, but those are increasingly being taken up by COVID-19 patients who have already maxed out the non-ICU ward at St. B.
"The hospitals are full; we do not have staff to expand," he said.
"The next week will clearly tell whether or not we are going to be able to cope or whether some other, radical plans are going to be needed to care for the COVID patients that require ICU care."
The number of people being treated in Manitoba hospitals with COVID-19 topped 500 on Friday, as the province reported five more deaths due to the disease.
According to the province’s pandemic online dashboard, 517 people were in hospital with COVID-19 as of Friday morning; 45 were in ICUs.
On Jan. 12, Health Minister Audrey Gordon said she’s instructed her team to find every alternative to airlifting patients out of the province (as it did in during the pandemic’s third wave), but wouldn’t rule out the possibility.
"It is our role as leadership to ensure Manitobans receive care in their home province, and that is the No.1 priority," Gordon told reporters.
The minister added she’d made no preliminary calls to other provinces or U.S. states to see if any could take patients.
"We’re able to assist our Manitobans with the care they need here at home, so there is no need to have those discussions," Gordon said.
That’s news to Eyolfson, who said he has no clue what to do when there are more intensive care patients than staff can handle.
"How will we do that, if that happens tomorrow when I’m on duty?" he said Friday. "We don’t know what these contingency plans are."
Canada’s chief public health officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, presented Friday’s federal modelling, which suggested daily cases could peak around 7,000 in Manitoba.
That would be more than double the highest number to date, although recent figures are hard to assess with the rationing of PCR testing.
Manitoba officials said Jan. 5 the number of cases are likely eight to 10 times what’s being detected in lab testing, and the province hasn’t provided an updated metric.
Tam said she didn’t have a sense of how many cases in Canada are going undetected, adding that it likely varies by region.
"Canada could see a sharp peak and decline in cases in the coming weeks (but) even the downside of this curve will be considerable," she said.
The strain on hospitals could be at a level unseen in Canada, while the impact on various workplaces alone in the coming weeks could be jarring, Tam added.
"With several weeks of very intense activity expected to come, we need to do our best now to limit the size of the Omicron surge in order to maintain the health system and critical functions of society."
The Omicron variant is about three times more transmissible than Delta, and generally causes less severe infections. But because it’s so contagious, Omicron is set to cause an estimated 1,000 to 2,000 deaths in Canada this month.
— with files from Katie May and Danielle Da Silva
Parliamentary bureau chief
In Ottawa, Dylan enjoys snooping through freedom-of-information requests and asking politicians: "What about Manitoba?"