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COVID infections driving up Winnipeg emergency wait times, WRHA CEO says

A rise in COVID-19 infections in Winnipeg is driving up wait times for hospital emergency and urgent care departments, says the head of Winnipeg Health Region — contradicting government claims infected patients are not impacting care.

In an email sent to Winnipeg Regional Health Authority employees on Friday, WRHA president and CEO Mike Nader said Winnipeg hospitals are seeing a “higher than normal” spike in COVID admissions as well as sicker patients than earlier in the pandemic.

This is driving up wait times at emergency departments and urgent care wards to what he described as “concerning” levels, particularly for patients who are less sick, he said in the email.

Patients are also staying longer in emergency and urgent-care departments while they are waiting for COVID tests, he added. 

Sick time for hospital staff is now at historic highs, he said, partly because some staff are off work with symptoms or confirmed cases of COVID-19.

“COVID is continuing to spread throughout the community. This is leading to a higher-than-normal increase in COVID-positive medicine patients and is creating additional pressure,” Nader said to staff via email on Friday evening.

“We are now seeing patients, who have avoided seeking care initially during the pandemic, are generally sicker upon presentation. As a result, they are requiring more and longer medical care.”

Previous attempts to redirect patients from emergency departments and ICUs in Winnipeg to less busy care facilities have been significantly impacted by weather events, Nader said, which has also added to strain on the system.

Nader’s statement contradicts repeated statements made by Chief Provincial Public Health Officer Brent Roussin and Premier Heather Stefanson, who have described COVID hospitalizations as having little impact on hospitals.

“Many of our hospitalizations are incidental — in because of something else, but they happen to have COVID,” Stefanson said on April 19.

Nader told reporters Monday increased COVID patients numbers do have an impact on hospitals, given the isolation measures required for infectious patients, the personal protective equipment staff must wear and the ability to transfer those patients to other units.

“The challenges that we face with patients that have COVID in hospital is it severely disrupts our work flow,” Nader said.

Health Minister Audrey Gordon said Monday she is concerned about long wait times at emergency departments but said there are no plans to amend public health orders to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

“I’m very concerned about the wait times and the number of individuals who have to wait long times,” Gordon told reporters at the Manitoba legislative building, calling emergency wait times of eight to 10 hours unacceptable.

“I’m insisting that they fix it.”

Gordon pushed back against the notion a rise in COVID-19 infections is a factor in the long wait times. She said a number of factors have contributed to the issue facing Winnipeg hospitals.

Ideas ‘from the hospital floor’

She said she met with Roussin Monday and received no request for changes to public health orders. She suggested hospitals are responsible for coming up with ideas to reduce wait times.

“Sometimes they say the best ideas come from the hospital floor,” Gordon said.

Nader said in his email he visited a number of hospitals to gain a better understanding of the situation on the ground.

Paramedics are being asked to take less sick patients to urgent care centres instead of emergency departments to reduce the strain. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

He said changes are being made to reduce wait times. Ambulances are being asked to send less sick patients to urgent care facilities instead of emergency departments, he said. 

Dr. Shawn Young, the COO of Health Sciences Centre, told reporters via Zoom on Monday the move will hopefully redirect dozens of patients, and will be done in a safe and calculated way.

As well, COVID tests are being administered to new arrivals at both urgent care and emergency departments and the health region is changing the way it transfers patients to other regions and manages COVID patients sent home with oxygen.

“Whatever the challenges we might face, there is no question that the pandemic has frankly made it exponentially harder to focus on identifying and implementing opportunities to address them,” Nader said in his email.

Neither Nader nor Young explicitly called on the province to reinstate any public health orders to take pressure off of emergency departments.

“I don’t think any one thing is going to address that,” Nader told reporters Monday.

He said admissions of all patients are up between 16 and 21 per cent in recent weeks.

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