WINNIPEG -- Frontline doctors are making an urgent appeal to Manitobans to follow public health advice.

Physicians say hospitals and intensive care units will be pushed past their limits if people don’t cut down their contacts and some have expressed their concern in another letter to Manitoba’s Premier.

The dire warning comes as the number of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in the province drastically rise.

“We’re calling a red alert, really encouraging Manitobans to limit their contact,” said critical care physician Dr. Kendiss Olafson.

The intensive care units where Dr. Olafson works to treat some of the sickest COVID and non-COVID patients are at 94 per cent capacity, as of Monday morning, 75 of 80 beds are occupied, 18 of those by COVID-19 patients but the worst may be yet to come.

“We know that our hospitalizations and our ICU numbers are going to increase significantly in the next couple of weeks and we are already full,” said Olafson. “That’s why it’s so imperative that people listen to Dr. Roussin.”

More than 100 physicians and experts have also signed a second letter to Premier Brian Pallister calling for more action to curb transmission.

“I think a full lockdown is what we need at this moment,” said Dr. Terry Wuerz, an infectious disease physician in Winnipeg. “Like many people, I have grave concerns about the adverse effects, the side effects of such a lockdown.”

Wuerz is among the physicians and experts who’ve added their names to the letter to Pallister. It calls for an expansion of public health measures, including a review of orders allowing people to attend religious services in-person and gyms to stay open.

“What we’re dealing with is really exponential growth in the number of cases,” said Wuerz. “And there’s always a one to two week lag in seeing those cases and then seeing them showing up in the hospital or even in the intensive care unit. 

“That’s the part that really concerns us.”

Chief provincial public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin said he values input from his colleagues but feels confident in the current measures.

“We’ve learned a lot about this virus and ways to take a bit more of a nuanced approach rather than having to lock down everything,” said Roussin, who urged Manitobans to do their part to help frontline physicians. 

“Health care providers are there for Manitobans and like usual they’re there for us now and we gotta be there for them. So we need to step up and reduce our contacts, reduce that demand on the health care system.”

In addition, doctors who signed the letter agreed emergency funding is needed to help public health ramp up contact tracing. 

It’s something Pallister acknowledged Monday, his government didn’t do fast enough.

“The preparatory work that was done was done with a view to meeting a need that has been exceeded,” said Pallister.

Roussin said there was a backlog in contact tracing but by this week he said public health will have the resources it needs to keep up.

The province is getting help from Statistics Canada and the Canadian Red Cross.

Meantime, health minister Cameron Friesen said the government is working with health providers to create additional capacity in hospitals.

“We’re doing that,” said Friesen. “Hiring. Redeploying from within.”

“Doctors talked about the need for the focus to be on the safety of Manitobans and not right now on the bottom line. We agree. We will add up the invoices later.”

Olafson said even that comes with limits because of the training required for staff to work in areas such as critical care, once physical capacity is increased.

“My knowledge base is not something that is part of the toolbox of other physicians,” said Olafson. “This is the same for nurses and respiratory therapists.

“Yes. We can probably deploy people but I’d be concerned about our ability to be able to provide the high quality of care that people require if that becomes a reality.”