The Winkler-Morden hospital is being forced to bring in backup oxygen tanks to treat severely ill patients, as up to one in five people admitted for care are COVID-19 positive.
Boundary Trails Health Centre, located at the connection of Highways 3 and 14, between the southern Manitoba cities, has one oxygen concentrator — a commonly-used treatment for the respiratory damage COVID-19 causes.
It provides around 200 litres of oxygen per minute to patients in need. That’s usually more than enough, says Dr. Denis Fortier, regional medical lead and chief medical officer for Southern Health, considering the relatively small size of the 94-bed site.
Boundary Trails’ facilities were built to provide oxygen support to a number of patients at more-normal levels before COVID-19, Fortier said Thursday.
It always had backup options available, on the chance the base concentrator lost function or the possibility of a slight rise in patients in need of oxygen — a situation that almost never occurred in the past, he said.
Today, the hospital is regularly replacing its backup oxygen to keep up with the high case counts in the health district and increase in COVID-19 patients on-site.
"I think the message here is that there are too many sick people with COVID requiring oxygen… and because there’s too many people requiring so much oxygen, Boundary Trails is having to mitigate the risks much more nimbly than before," Fortier said.
“I think the message here is that there are too many sick people with COVID requiring oxygen…" — Dr. Denis Fortier
Winkler is second only to Powerview/Pine Falls for the highest number of active COVID-19 cases in a health district outside of Winnipeg (76, as of Thursday). The hospital also treats patients from Morden (41 active cases) and the Rural Municipality of Stanley (seven).
As many as 20 per cent of patients at Boundary Trails at any given time are COVID-19 positive, Fortier said, but the objectively small number belies a "not insignificant" strain on the hospital.
Last week, Boundary Trails announced it would be closing two of its three operating rooms to redeploy staff, after more than a dozen health-care workers were identified as close contacts of COVID-19 cases.
Some of those staff have been given the all-clear to return to work, Fortier said, but the situation is still touch-and-go.
“There’s redeployment within the hospital, there’s sometimes redeployment outside of the hospital to support some of the things happening in Winnipeg… All of that is putting pressure on the workforce." — Dr. Denis Fortier
"There’s redeployment within the hospital, there’s sometimes redeployment outside of the hospital to support some of the things happening in Winnipeg… All of that is putting pressure on the workforce," he said.
Winkler has the second-lowest COVID-19 vaccine uptake rate in the province: 21.5 per cent of adults, the province says.
The city is second only to the RM of Stanley (which surrounds Winkler and Morden, but both cities act as separate municipalities): 10.4 per cent of eligible adults vaccinated.
Winkler Mayor Martin Harder said he’d heard concerns from the community the hospital would run out of viable oxygen for patients, and was hoping to dispel the rumour.
"There’s a big hysteria going out there — ‘Oh, we can’t even be sick because there’s no oxygen,’ that is simply not the truth," he said.
Harder said despite many in the community’s best efforts, Winkler’s low vaccine uptake rate has been persistent, and those refusing to get the jab have painted the city in an unfair light.
"Honestly, I’m disappointed, that’s the only way to put it," he said.
Stanley Reeve Morris Olafson said he was concerned the province’s recorded vaccine uptake rate for the RM was inaccurate, noting many in the area use Winkler or Morden addresses and are being included in numbers for the cities.
“There’s a big hysteria going out there ‐ ‘Oh, we can’t even be sick because there’s no oxygen,’ that is simply not the truth." — Winkler Mayor Martin Harder
Olafson said he believed the vaccination numbers for Stanley were likely on par with those in Winkler and Morden — still some of the lowest in the province.
However, Stanley has a young population, Olafson said, suggesting concerns about low uptake in the region "cool everybody’s jets" and wait for younger people to attend the vaccine appointments they’ve booked.
Olafson, himself, has been vaccinated, but said he wouldn’t encourage constituents to do so.
"I’m not here to push one way or the other… It’s a free country, last time I heard."
Malak Abas is a reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press.