With rising numbers of critically-ill COVID-19 patients admitted to Manitoba ICUs, the province is now ensuring loved ones know transfers may be made out of province and that the government will cover the cost of sending along a compassionate caregiver.
"We don't want anyone to be surprised by that, even though it's always been the case in Manitoba, that clinicians make the decisions about moving patients interfacility," acting health minister Kelvin Goertzen told reporters in a scrum at the legislature Monday.
Shared Health said 40 ICU patients have now been sent out of province since May 18.
As of 12:01 a.m. Monday, 122 patients were in a Manitoba ICU, including 71 patients who have or are recovering from COVID-19. A record 17 COVID-19 patients under the age of 40 were in ICU Monday morning — a 54 per cent jump from only seven days ago.
Over a 48-hour period between Friday and Sunday, 30 COVID-19 patients were admitted to ICU and 10 more COVID-19 deaths were reported.
There have been 246 COVID-19 patients admitted to Manitoba ICUs in May — nearly five times the 50 COVID-19 patients admitted to ICU the previous month. Of the 40 ICU patients sent out of province, four have returned to Manitoba. Of the 36 patients still being treated at faraway hospitals in Ontario (35) and Saskatchewan (one), four are under the age of 40.
When asked about loved ones who oppose an ICU patient transfer, Goertzen said doctors consult with families but do not require their consent to move patients. The former health minister, who is handling the health portfolio while Health Minister Heather Stefanson is on a medical leave, said clinicians have always been able to move patients without their family's permission if it's in the best interest of the patient or the overall health care system.
Goertzen said if a COVID-19 ICU patient is transferred out of province, Manitoba will cover the cost of a compassionate caregiver joining them. The province will pay for their flight, meals, accommodation and transportation to and from airport, he said. They may not be able to accompany their loved one on the flight or inside an out-of-province ICU where pandemic restrictions are in place but there may be a comfort in being close by, he said.
"It won't always be a great consolation but I think, for some, it will be important," Goertzen said.
It's what NDP Leader Wab Kinew asked Premier Brian Pallister for during question period last week.
"Nobody wants a loved one in ICU to be transferred out of province but that is a reality — that is the crisis we're dealing with in Manitoba today," Kinew told reporters Monday. "Given that reality, this is a step that must be taken to help those families. They are suffering right now."
It's troubling that the acting health minister announced the new measures more than two weeks after out of province transfers began, said Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont.
"They're always reacting weeks after the fact," said Lamont, who tabled in the house Monday a Shared Health memo dated May 18 — when out-of-province ICU patient transfers began — that contains scripts for health care providers to follow. The scripts regarding patient transfers make no mention of patients facing out of province transfers, said Lamont. "It speaks to me about how unprepared they were — that they're not even thinking these things through."
On Monday, Shared Health announced 13 respiratory therapy students will graduate early to join the frontlines at the Health Sciences Centre and St. Boniface Hospital, adding 304 shifts over the next six weeks.
Another 15 nurses began a two-week critical care orientation Monday. A total of 119 nurses have signed up for the training since April 19.
Six Canadian Red Cross nurses are now in Manitoba, completing their orientation to work at HSC. Three medical lab technologists from the Canadian Armed Forces began training last Friday to support COVID-19 testing in Shared Health labs. A Canadian Armed Forces crew and aircraft are assisting in the transport of some ICU patients. Two multi-purpose medical assistance teams are now assisting at an alternative isolation accommodation site in Winnipeg.
The lag time between new COVID-19 cases and hospital admissions means that the strain on ICUs isn't going away any time soon, said chief provincial public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin. On Monday, he announced 303 new COVID-19 cases and test-positivity rates remaining troublingly high at 12.1 per cent for the province and 13.7 per cent for Winnipeg.
"If we see these case counts coming down, we're still going to see strains on the health care system for the following week or two," Roussin warned.
After 20 years of reporting on the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home, Carol moved to the legislature bureau in early 2020.