During last year’s third wave of COVID-19, Heather Stefanson claimed Manitoba’s health-care system could handle dozens more critically ill cases five days after a top health official discussed the possibility of out-of-province ICU patient transfers.
Premier Stefanson, who was health minister at the time, denies she was aware of plans to transfer patients until the first person was relocated on May 18 — the same day she told reporters Manitoba hospitals could expand their ICU capacity to 170 beds.
The revelation came during question period last week, after the provincial NDP presented the calendar of Shared Health CEO Adam Topp, which they acquired with a freedom of information request, and accused Stefanson of misleading Manitobans.
According to the calendar, Topp met with Stefanson on May 13 to discuss the province’s intensive-care capacity and later that day held a meeting to review the Thunder Bay Regional Health Sciences Centre’s ICU capacity.
However, Stefanson claims she only learned of the ICU patient transfers after clinical health leaders had already decided they were necessary.
Uzoma Asagwara, the Manitoba NDP’s heath critic, called Stefanson’s assertion that she was not aware of the transfers “unconscionable.”
“She claims she wasn’t aware [but] either she knew and she deliberately misled Manitobans or while she was minister of health, she didn’t know what was happening in our health-care system with some of the sickest patients when it was her responsibility,” Asagwara said.
“Personally, I don’t buy it, but if that is in fact the case […] it reflects her level of disengagement with her role and responsibility while she was minister of health.”
NDP Leader Wab Kinew said the fact that Stefanson is now the premier, despite her handling of the pandemic, “is not a good reflection on this government.”
“The health portfolio is the biggest portfolio in government and certainly during a pandemic, it’s the most important,” said Kinew.
“The fact that the premier doesn’t appear to have been able to do the job of health minister effectively, the fact that we’re still in a pandemic and that person is now in a leadership role of government, I think should concern people in Manitoba.”
Around this time, health-care workers had already begun warning that regardless of the number of beds and ventilators available, there were not enough trained staff to treat the rising number of COVID cases.
On May 18, Stefanson told reporters Manitoba could accept an additional 50 ICU patients — for a total of 170 — but later that day, Shared Health announced ICU beds were at capacity and two patients were sent to Thunder Bay.
Despite Stefanson’s claims of ignorance, Shared Health was aware the province couldn’t handle 170 ICU patients well before the meeting regarding Thunder Bay on May 13.
On May 7, then-chief nursing officer for the province Lanette Siragusa called a plan developed during the second wave to staff 173 ICU beds a “paper exercise” that did not reflect the reality of Manitoba’s capacity.
Additionally, 34 patients with COVID-19 were admitted to Manitoba’s ICUs, nearly half of the province’s pre-pandemc capacity, between May 13 and 17.
Asagwara said Manitoba’s need to send patients to other jurisdictions is “a direct result” of the government’s cuts to health care before and during the pandemic.
Kinew pointed out the Progressive Conservatives closed several emergency rooms before the pandemic, “each of which had ICU beds in them.”
The province ultimately sent 57 COVID-19 patients to other provinces throughout the third wave, with 12 dying while receiving treatment outside Manitoba.
Kinew said the government’s handling of the pandemic “has been a failure.”
“I think Manitobans generally are very frustrated with the way the government has responded to the pandemic [and] feel like it’s been poorly handled by the PCs,” he said.
Premier Stefanson was absent from question period last Tuesday and her office did not respond to requests for comment.