Coronavirus: Manitoba nurses worry about lack of ICU space, staffing vacancies

Manitoba’s COVID-19 infection rate remains low and none of the positive patients have required any sort of hospitalization, but health workers say they’re concerned due to few free critical care beds in the province.

There have been 2,900 people tested with 17 confirmed positive cases, which puts Manitoba’s infection rate at close to 0.6 per cent.

“As that proportion moves up, then we’re much more likely to be seeing community transmission,” Manitoba’s Chief Public Provincial Health Officer Dr. Brent Roussin said Wednesday.

Even with increasing numbers, Dr. Roussin said the province is ready.

“The health care system has been at highest readiness since beginning of February,” he said.

But with the likelihood of more positive cases and more severe patients, some health care workers and their unions are raising concerns.

“We are generally at capacity in our critical care areas on an everyday basis already,” Manitoba Nurses Union President Darlene Jackson said. “If we have to move into over-capacity beds that also means we are going to need more staff.”

There are 87 critical care beds across the province and all but five of those are in Winnipeg.

“In Winnipeg, approximately 85 per cent of critical care beds were in use as of midday Wednesday,” said a provincial spokesperson via email.

That number worries Bob Moroz, Manitoba Association of Health Care Professionals (MAHCP) president.

“There’s none hospitalized but the potential exists,” said Moroz. “That’s where our folks are really concerned.”

COVID-19 affects the body’s respiratory systems and the most severe cases not only require hospitalization, but often need constant ICU care by a registered nurse and a respiratory therapist,” he added.

Respiratory therapists are highly specialized in patients’ airways, intubation and ventilator care and will be a key care component for patients with COVID-19, said Moroz.

However, currently, there is a high vacancy rate in the province.

“At HSC we’re looking at a vacancy rate of 30 per cent,” Moroz said. “We’ve been running so lean, for so long, that we don’t have the capacity or we are concerned about the capacity to handle something so serious as the COVID-19 outbreak.”

On top of a lack of staffing, there are concerns among front line workers that there isn’t enough equipment to handle the pandemic.

Lanette Siragusa, chief nursing officer, said there are 243 ventilators in Manitoba and another 20 on order.

“We have been working on those vacancy rates, it is not 100 per cent perfect for sure,” she said Tuesday.

Siragusa said their team is already looking at using a team-based approach to help care for more patients at the same time.

“There might not be enough critical care nurses for one-to-one, but if we put people together in a model where they have support from a respiratory therapist and another nurse and a critical care nurse, then together they can take care of a larger group of patients,” she said.

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