As anti-maskers were preparing to rally in Steinbach, the community's hospital was reportedly being overrun with COVID-19 patients.

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As anti-maskers were preparing to rally in Steinbach, the community's hospital was reportedly being overrun with COVID-19 patients.

It became so hectic Friday, some patients were being triaged in their own private vehicles, because of a lack of space in the Bethesda Regional Health Centre emergency department, the Manitoba Nurses Union said.

"It is concerning," Health Minister Cameron Friesen said at a news conference Friday afternoon, after learning about the situation in Steinbach an hour earlier.

Manitoba recorded 434 new COVID-19 cases Friday — 96 of them in the Southern Health region that includes Steinbach.

The province's pandemic death toll rose to 137, with the report of five more lives lost due to the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

Three of those deaths were in Winnipeg: a man in his 60s, a man in his 80s, and a woman in her 80s connected to the Maples care home outbreak. The virus also claimed the lives of a woman in her 40s in the Northern Health region, and a woman in her 60s from Interlake-Eastern.

On Friday, Manitoba had 6,307 active COVID-19 cases, and a five-day test positivity rate of 11.6 per cent for the province; 12.2 per cent in Winnipeg.

With the virus spreading, 231 people were in hospital, including 34 in intensive care.

Friesen told media he wasn't aware of reports that all of Winnipeg's ICU beds were currently occupied, after very sick patients were transferred from Steinbach, some 60 kilometres southeast of the capital.

"We know Steinbach and area have some of the highest transmission rates right now in the whole province," the health minister said, the day before a planned "Hugs over Masks" car rally in Manitoba's third-largest city.

"Right now, our hospitals are very, very busy places," said Friesen. "This why we are telling people we are at a critical junction right now for COVID-19. To the few people in Manitoba who haven't been taking this seriously: you have to take it seriously now.

"We cannot afford to overwhelm our hospital capacity."

At the Steinbach hospital, multiple units are experiencing outbreaks, and an estimated seven nurses have already tested positive for COVID-19, the MNU said in a news release.

"This is what the system looks like when it’s overwhelmed, and it’s scary," Bob Moroz, president of the Manitoba Association of Health Care Professionals, said in an email.

Community spread of the virus is so prevalent, paramedics in Southern Health now assume any call they respond to is COVID-19 positive, he said.

Lab and diagnostic imaging professionals at Bethesda and smaller sites are also coming into contact with more COVID-19 positive or suspected COVID-19-positive patients in the region, said Moroz. The union hears too often the deemed safest face masks, N95 respirators, are denied except for in very specific circumstances, he said.

"Government and health officials need to do everything in their power to rein this in, and also make sure health-care workers who are risking their safety to keep the system going are protected and supported."

Friesen said the province making the health-care system more flexible, by scaling back some elective, non-urgent surgeries so it can ramp up ICU capacity, but it's a gradual process. He pleaded with Manitobans to stay home and not spread the virus.

"In the last two weeks, the number of people in hospital and the ICU has tripled. Clearly, we can't keep that up," the health minister said.

At a COVID-19 briefing earlier Friday, Shared Health nursing chief Lanette Siragusa said the situation is becoming dire. Manitoba’s 93 ICU beds are filling up as more COVID patients are hospitalized.

"This past week has seen significant demands on the health-care system," she said. "Planning has put in place the necessary space, equipment and supplies required to meet the needs of Manitobans."

The challenge, however, is having enough staff. "Staffing will always be the No. 1 vulnerability," the chief nursing officer said.

The stark reality of the COVID-19 crisis is now being laid bare, chief provincial public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin said at Friday's briefing with Siragusa.

"You hear from front-line workers who are being overwhelmed," he said. "This is real and having real effects... Every day, we're announcing more deaths and sending condolences."

Siragusa shared some messages from health-care workers on the pandemic front lines, including one humble request.

"We don't need your gratitude," Siragusa read. "We need you to wear a mask and keep your distance and stop spreading this virus, please."

— with files from Danielle Da Silva

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.