RESPIRATORY therapists and ICU nurses are waiting for help, as Manitoba’s health-care system struggles with increased COVID-19 cases and hospital admissions.

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RESPIRATORY therapists and ICU nurses are waiting for help, as Manitoba’s health-care system struggles with increased COVID-19 cases and hospital admissions.

A week ago, Premier Brian Pallister announced he was asking the federal government to send critical care nurses and 20 respiratory therapists to assist Manitoba.

On Friday, the union representing the specialists who keep ICU patients alive on breathing machines issued a news release, saying there’s no word on when any such help may arrive.

Meanwhile, nurses who’ve been without a contract for more than four years say they are overwhelmed and understaffed.

News that military nurses and transport teams were to arrive Friday in Manitoba was welcomed by their union.

"(However)... nurses are incredibly angry and incredibly frustrated with the lack of preparation, with the lack of planning — with the lack of response to the fact that we’ve been heading into a critical nursing shortage for years — with absolutely no acknowledgment by this government that we are in this position," said Manitoba Nurses Union president Darlene Jackson.

Winnipeg lost 49 critical care nurse positions during the province’s health-care consolidation between 2019 and 2020, according to a freedom of information request by the NDP.

In January 2019, there were 293 critical care nursing positions filled; dropping to 244 in January 2020. When the second wave of COVID-19 hit, officials pulled staff from other departments to fill 285 critical care positions in January 2021.

During COVID-19, Manitoba has had to scramble to nearly double its ICU capacity and nursing staff.

It’s still not enough: highly infectious and hard-hitting variants have put more and younger patients in hospital needing critical care, public health officials have stated. The lack of available critical care has prompted the transfer of 28 ICU patients from Manitoba with COVID-19 to hospitals out of province, as of Friday.

The strain of the pandemic has many of the highly-skilled nurses eyeing early retirement or less-demanding positions, said Jackson.

It’s also why recruitment and retention is a priority in contract talks, she said.

They’ve been at the table for more than 25 days since October, and the negotiations are moving slowly, Jackson said.

Nurses are included in the Essential Services Act and can’t strike, but if contract talks reach an impasse, fed-up nurses are ready to act: "Just give us the word," according to Jackson.

Acting health minister Kelvin Goertzen wasn’t made available to comment Friday, but a spokesman for the province issued a statement saying: "Government wants all of our dedicated nurses to have the certainty and comfort of a new, long-term collective agreement, as soon as possible."

The health-care bargaining unit restructuring process and necessary representation votes did not conclude until the end of 2019, the spokesman said. "Since bargaining actually became possible, the representative health authority and MNU have been very actively bargaining in good faith, despite the intervening COVID-19 pandemic."


Carol Sanders

Carol Sanders
Legislature reporter

After 20 years of reporting on the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home, Carol moved to the legislature bureau in early 2020.

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