DISABILITY advocates are continuing the call for Manitoba to be transparent about how patients will potentially be prioritized for life-saving treatment, as hospitals fill up in the COVID-19 pandemic’s third wave.
Manitoba does not have a pandemic triage plan to guide doctors in case there is not enough hospital space to go around.
The provincial health minister made no commitment to develop or implement such protocols, when asked about the issue during question period Tuesday.
In response to a question from Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont, who asked if the government would commit to a plan, Heather Stefanson said only the province continues to work with the disability community.
Other provinces, including Saskatchewan, Ontario and Alberta, have publicly released emergency plans, showing what they’ll do if hospitals are overwhelmed and can’t provide critical care to everyone who needs it.
The triage plans in other provinces promise to be guided by medical ethics — and advocates for Manitobans with disabilities want assurance they won’t face discrimination in any last-minute life-or-death decisions.
David Kron, spokesman for Barrier Free MB, a coalition of local advocacy groups, said Manitoba needs a public policy.
"I understand the need to have a protocol. We just want to know what it is, so that it’s done in a timely way and so that they’re not doing it at the bedside in the ICU," he said Tuesday.
"So let’s have an open conversation about it. If you have scarce resources and you have to triage treatment, what does that look like? What does that mean?"
All but emergency surgeries have been cancelled in Manitoba, and non-urgent medical procedures are still on hold.
On Tuesday morning, there were 154 COVID-19 patients in Manitoba hospitals; 59 of them in intensive care. Normal ICU capacity is 72 beds, but that’s been expanded during the pandemic.
Planning is ongoing to meet the demands of the COVID-19 surge, a Shared Health spokesperson said in a statement, saying the organization responsible for overseeing hospitals is "confident" it will meet the demand.
"At this time, clinical teams are focused on ensuring sufficient capacity is available to care for patients as demand increases. Should a triage protocol be required, consultations with clinical and ethics leaders will occur at that time," Shared Health’s statement reads, in part.
In October, the coalition of disability advocates started hearing concerns from its members about what Manitoba’s protocols might be if hospitals were overloaded and doctors were forced to choose who should receive treatment.
They did not want traditionally marginalized people to be judged as having a lower quality of life or to be automatically pushed aside if it came down to a lack of ventilators.
"We all hope we don’t get to that point, but, you know: what if?" Kron said.
The group wrote to then-health minister Cameron Friesen last fall, and renewed its calls for a triage protocol in another letter to Stefanson late last month. They haven’t yet received an answer.
Katie May reports on courts, crime and justice for the Free Press.