As Manitobans get ready for what health officials say is the start of COVID-19‘s third wave, doctors and nurses are warning that without proper precautions, the province’s health-care system could be hit even harder than it was when hundreds of new cases were being reported a day last fall.
At the peak of Manitoba’s second wave, intensive care units swelled with as many 129 people in need of critical care at one time. As of Thursday, when health officials announced the province’s first case of the highly contagious P.1 variant, 91 patients were already filling those beds.
That’s worrying for Dr. Anand Kumar, an intensive care physician and infectious disease specialist working in Winnipeg, who says hospitals are still struggling to care for those critically ill patients even months after they were admitted at the height of the province’s second wave.
And now his concerns are rising with daily case counts increasing again and dozens of cases of variants of concern being reported every day.
“What we need to be concerned about is that that slow creep is going to become something that is more explosive,” Kumar said Thursday.
“We’re prepared as well as we can be, (but) because these variants have become dominant, the possibility of exceeding our ICU and hospital capacity is significantly higher than it was before.”
Since the first cases of the B.1.1.7 variant, first identified in the U.K., were reported in Manitoba in February, the province has recorded 647 confirmed cases of variants of concern, including 87 new cases added to the list Thursday.
So far the most dominant variant — with hundreds of cases identified — has been the B.1.1.7 strain, but Manitoba has also seen cases of the B.1.351 variant first found in South Africa and now the P.1 variant, first identified in Brazil, has arrived too.
While Kumar says efforts to vaccinate older Manitobans may mean the province sees less deaths during the third wave, he worries younger people be the ones will be the ones hit hardest this time around.
And ICU patients already appear to be getting younger.
Data provided by the province Thursday shows of the current 35 patients in ICU as a result of COVID-19, seven are under the age of 50.
“One of the issues is that with younger people becoming infected, those younger people are likely — even if they get better — they are likely to linger in the ICU for a longer period of time before they declare whether they’re going to make it or not,” Kumar said.
Manitoba Nurses Union president Darlene Jackson says her nurses are already suffering from severe burnout after working extra shifts, overtime, and long hours through the first two waves of COVID-19 due to longstanding staffing shortages that predate the pandemic.
“We have nurses with 10 years experience saying I cant do it, I can’t keep this pace up, I can’t do it,” she said Thursday.
“Nurses are going into the third wave absolutely exhausted, we are in a critical nursing shortage they are telling me that I don’t know how much longer I can keep this pace up.”
A spokesperson for Shared Health tells Global News the province is preparing for increased hospitalization related to the third wave of COVID-19.
He said supplies of personal protective equipment remain stable, enough medical equipment has been purchased, and “much of the space previously identified for repurposing to accommodate additional COVID patients remains available.”
Immunization efforts are also expected to lower the number of critically-ill patients and reduce sick time taken by health-care workers, the spokesperson said,
“We are grateful for our staff, who have shown unwavering strength in the past year as they’ve faced this virus head-on,” reads a statement from Shared Health.
“Manitobans are greatly appreciative of their efforts under difficult circumstances and recognize the effect another COVID-related patient surge will have on their psyche. It remains our priority to ensure they feel safe and supported as the third wave begins.”
Ultimately Kumar says how quickly the third wave rises — and how it affects Manitoba’s health care system — will depend on what level of restrictions government decides to put in place, and how soon officials decide to put them in place.
“If we get a major new wave it’s going to push us very, very hard,” he said.
— With files from Brittany Greenslade