Manitoba’s intensive care units can handle close to one new admission a day, on average, without disrupting normal hospital operations. Two per day, on a sustained basis, may force hospital administrators to redeploy staff to ICUs from other wards.
More than three daily admissions can lead to disaster — the kind Manitoba experienced earlier this year, when officials airlifted 57 COVID-19 patients out of province for critical care treatment. ICU patients tend to remain in hospital for long periods, which means they pile up fast when admission rates are high.
That’s how Manitoba Health described its ICU capacity in October, when public health officials pleaded with people to get fully vaccinated and follow public health orders to reduce pressure on hospitals.
Since then, the ICU situation has gone from bad to worse, largely owing to scores of unvaccinated patients — mostly from the Southern Health region — clogging up hospital beds and threatening to collapse Manitoba’s health-care system.
ICU admissions from Southern Health alone over the past month have been enough to trigger contingency planning at Manitoba hospitals.
By mid-November, the number of new COVID-19 ICU admissions from Southern Health exceeded an average of one a day, according to statistics compiled from the province’s online data portal.
There were two ICU admissions from Southern Health some days in November. On Dec. 6, there were four. No other health region, including Winnipeg, had more than one ICU admission in a single day over the past month.
Between Nov. 12 and Dec. 12 (the most recent available data), 33 of 69 COVID-19 ICU admissions were from Southern Health. The region is home to about 15 per cent of Manitoba’s population.
During that same period, 15 ICU admissions came from Winnipeg, 13 from Prairie Mountain, five from Interlake-Eastern, and three from Northern Health.
Since Oct. 1, 73 of 142 COVID-19 deaths originated from Southern Health. As of Tuesday, 17 of 34 COVID-19 patients in ICUs are from that region.
Meanwhile, the vast majority of ICU admissions and COVID-19 deaths across the province continue to be among those who were not fully vaccinated.
There is incontrovertible evidence that low vaccine coverage and a stubborn refusal to follow public health orders, including masking indoors and adhering to proof-of-vaccination policies, is killing and hospitalizing people from Southern Health at disproportionate rates.
Hospitals have been forced to redeploy health-care staff and cancel thousands of procedures to accommodate that, leaving tens of thousands of Manitobans suffering in pain and misery on growing wait lists.
This is the direct result of a misguided and misinformed anti-vaccination campaign that has taken a foothold in parts of the province. It is also the result of a provincial government that has refused to effectively enforce public health orders.
So now, with the new, more infectious omicron variant on the verge of becoming the dominant strain in Canada, Manitoba is entering the next phase of the pandemic in a position of weakness rather than strength.
Manitoba hospitals are averaging over three new ICU patients a day (around half from Southern Health, the vast majority of whom are not fully vaccinated). Instead of having enough capacity to absorb another wave, Manitoba hospitals already have 34 COVID-19 patients in ICUs and 135 in hospital overall.
That’s far fewer than the number of hospitalized patients during the second and third waves, when vaccines were either not available or fewer than 100,000 Manitobans were fully immunized. Still, it’s high enough hospitals are on the verge of collapse — in part because of staffing shortages and increasing burnout among health-care workers.
The province can still dull the impact of the omicron variant, but it must do so fast.
An aggressive enforcement strategy in Southern Health is critical and a mandatory vaccination policy for personal care home staff is long overdue. The province also has to do a far better job of communicating the urgent need for eligible Manitobans to get booster shots.
Without those actions, local hospitals could be headed for more disaster.
Tom has been covering Manitoba politics since the early 1990s and joined the Winnipeg Free Press news team in 2019.