Viv Ketchum was having trouble breathing after contracting COVID-19, so she decided to visit a Winnipeg ER for help.
She left feeling helpless.
Ketchum spent about 12 hours waiting in the emergency department at Health Sciences Centre this weekend before she was sent home with an inhaler. While she waited, she documented the realities around her.
The six-seat curtained area where she waited with other presumed-positive patients was full.
On her left, a male patient coughed up green phlegm and then, exhausted, slumped to the floor in the mess. Another man coughed outside the curtained area as he wandered the room.
Over a loudspeaker, she heard calls for nurses to sign on for overtime because the department was so short-staffed. People waiting for hours asked for water. She saw only one person receive food, despite multiple requests.
Ambulances brought in more patients.
"It’s just an eye-opener," she said. "I was a little bit shocked what I went through and how I was treated. This is scary. I’m not telling people not to go to the emergency room, but there has to be a better way.
“I was a little bit shocked what I went through and how I was treated. This is scary. I’m not telling people not to go to the emergency room, but there has to be a better way." – Viv Ketchum
"I thought if I share this… maybe changes will happen. There has to be."
COVID-19 hospitalizations are still on the rise in Manitoba, and most — if not all — of those patients come through ERs. As of Tuesday morning, there were 729 hospitalized COVID-19 patients, an increase of 13 patients over the previous 24 hours.
In statements, Shared Health and the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority said emergency departments and urgent-care centres have taken measures to set aside isolation space for waiting COVID-19 patients. At HSC, there’s additional overflow space for patients next to the emergency department, but it can only be used if there’s adequate staff.
It’s unclear how long people infected with COVID-19 can expect to wait if they need emergency medical treatment. The most recent ER wait times data is from November, before Omicron triggered record-high hospitalization rates.
Public-health officials have said Manitobans who test positive or suspect they have COVID should stay home unless they have trouble breathing. In that case, they’re instructed to go to the nearest ER.
That’s what Ketchum did after calling Health Links on Saturday, worried she had lung damage. She tested positive for COVID-19 on a rapid test about two weeks earlier and thought she was on the mend until she couldn’t stop coughing.
"I couldn’t catch a full breath, and it felt like there was a heavy pressure in my chest."
After waiting in the ER for several hours, Ketchum said she thought about giving up and going home, even though she couldn’t breathe properly.
"I know the priority is critical care, but you’d think in the pandemic that those who tested positive and are coughing all over the ER, that they would have top priority, get them seen and out of there," she said.
“I know the priority is critical care, but you’d think in the pandemic that those who tested positive and are coughing all over the ER, that they would have top priority, get them seen and out of there.” – Viv Ketchum
While waiting, Ketchum said she thought about what Premier Heather Stefanson said at a news conference on Jan. 12: "The government can’t protect everybody out there."
"And I saw that in the emergency room," Ketchum said.
She had tests completed at the hospital — including a PCR test that came back positive — while her inhaler is helping her recover. Although she’s triple vaccinated, Ketchum is an Indigenous woman in her 50s with a prior autoimmune condition. She was afraid she’d die of the virus.
"I thought I went to get help at a health-care facility, and I was alone. I don’t blame the nurses, I don’t blame the staff. They were short-staffed. I put the blame at the top. Not the nurses, they tried to do their best. But my fear and the helplessness I felt in that emergency room, I’m going to have to put it right at Premier Stefanson’s feet," she said.
Katie May is a general-assignment reporter for the Free Press.