Carrie McKinnon has been waiting for a knee replacement for nearly two years. Every day, she checks the province's latest COVID-19 hospitalization numbers, excited to see them decline, wondering when there will be hospital space for her.
"Every time the phone rings, I jump, like, 'Is it going to be today?'" she says.
McKinnon is one of tens of thousands of Manitobans on wait lists for delayed or cancelled procedures deemed non-essential when the province was forced to funnel all of its health-care resources into treating COVID-19 patients during the second and third waves of the pandemic.
Manitoba was slowest in Canada to pick up surgeries and resume cancelled procedures in the second wave, new national data shows.
On Thursday, Health Minister Heather Stefanson said tackling the backlog is one of her top priorities, but the province hasn't released data showing exactly how many Manitobans are still waiting.
"I know there's a lot of people that are worse off than me," McKinnon says. "But it's taking its toll. It's not just my knee anymore. It's my hips, it's my neck."
Pain swells in her back and other joints as they take over for her bad knee while she walks with a severe limp. She's been told to take more painkillers.
Her surgery was initially scheduled for May, after she was told in October 2019 she needed it, but it had to be cancelled. Before it was to be rescheduled, an influx of hospitalized COVID-19 patients in Winnipeg dashed her hopes.
"I know there's a lot of people that are worse off than me. But it's taking its toll. It's not just my knee anymore. It's my hips, it's my neck." – Carrie McKinnon
A former competitive volleyball player, McKinnon said she's become sedentary and her mental health has suffered. "I'm not going to lose my life over it, but so many other aspects of my life have changed."
When the pandemic began and all provinces suspended some surgeries, Manitoba initially had one of the lowest declines in surgery volumes compared with the rest of the country. However, during the second wave, Manitoba's surgery volumes dropped by an average of 29 per cent.
Nationally, surgery volumes decreased by about four per cent during the same time period, from October to December 2020, according to Thursday's report from the Canadian Institute for Health Information.
In response to the data, doctors in the province are renewing calls for the provincial government to set up a task force, commit to clearing the backlog by a fixed date and release figures monthly on the progress.
Doctors call for task force on massive surgery backlogClick to Expand
Posted: 3:38 PM Jun. 17, 2021
The provincial government needs to establish a task force to tackle Manitoba's pandemic surgery backlog, which has been made worse by the nursing shortage, doctors say.
The backlog has ballooned to more than 110,000 procedures and tests — including 39,000 delayed surgeries — Doctors Manitoba estimates. The province postponed elective and non-urgent surgeries because of COVID-19's demand on the health-care system, but the doctors say the backlog includes life-saving surgeries and has seriously affected heart and cancer patients.
Doctors Manitoba president Dr. Kristjan Thompson said Manitoba was the only province to see a significant number of surgeries cancelled or postponed in the second wave.
The organization, which represents more than 4,000 physicians, estimated last month at least 39,000 surgeries have been delayed and more than 71,000 diagnostic tests and screenings are still on hold. The new report validates that estimate, Thompson said, and means Manitoba needs transparent updates on the current state of the backlog.
There were 18,398 fewer surgeries performed in Manitoba during the first 10 months of the pandemic compared with the same time period in 2019, the report shows.
"In the ER, I see these patients, waiting to get their hips replaced, their knees. Suffering and in pain, needing their gallbladders taken out. So I see it anecdotally. We want to know what the actual numbers are," Thompson said.
Asked why Manitoba appears to be lagging behind other provinces in dealing with the backlog, Thompson said he recognizes it's a pandemic but that's why a concrete plan is needed.
"Physicians may not have every single answer, but we certainly do have a front-row seat to what we're seeing with our patients, and we are ready to work, to roll up our sleeves and work with government to solve this problem."
"In the ER, I see these patients, waiting to get their hips replaced, their knees. Suffering and in pain, needing their gallbladders taken out. So I see it anecdotally. We want to know what the actual numbers are." – Dr. Kristjan Thompson
Stefanson and deputy premier Kelvin Goertzen (who was acting health minister in Stefanson's absence) met Wednesday with Doctors Manitoba.
The government hasn't announced it will follow the doctors' recommendations, but Stefanson said they are working together and regular reporting on the backlog will be part of the province's response.
Shared Health says the number of delayed surgeries is now roughly 30,000. "However, providing an accurate number that encapsulates the surgical backlog due to the pandemic is difficult for multiple reasons," a statement provided Thursday reads.
"We are not hiding from that whatsoever," Stefanson said, reiterating the province has already announced plans to devote $50 million to deal with the surgical backlog.
McKinnon hopes she'll be able to have her surgery this month. She's been told to expect no more than 10 days' notice.
In the meantime, McKinnon said she feels for the surgeons and health-care staff who have seen patient lists balloon. She wants to see some indication provincial leaders understand what it's like to be on an ever-growing wait list.
"It's never going to get better on its own," she said.
Katie May reports on courts, crime and justice for the Free Press.