WINNIPEG -- Climbing COVID-19 hospitalization rates have forced an overwhelmed provincial health care system to look for federal help, as ICU admissions jump from 50 in April to 170 already in May in Manitoba, according to the province.

“We are the worst in North America,” said Dr. Perry Gray, provincial lead, medical specialist services, and chief medical officer with Shared Health.

The main message from health officials is that of complying with public health orders.

“Right now, need a very strict public health strategy and we need compliance with that strategy,” said Gray. “We are not asking for strict public health orders forever, we just need long enough to get over 75 per cent of the population vaccinated with a least one dose.”

Resistance to COVID-19 testing has also been a problem, according to Gray. Of the 296 COVID-19 patients in hospital on Friday, 129 of them tested positive for the virus after going to the hospital. That number includes 21 patients in the ICU.

According to Lanette Siragusa, chief nursing officer with Shared Health, about 70 per cent of people admitted to hospitals and ICU were not vaccinated. That includes both people who had been vaccinated, but their bodies had not yet built up antibodies, and those who are still waiting to get their shot.

ICU capacity in the province has increased from a pre-pandemic level of 72 to 140, and that number is expected to increase to 146 as the province delays surgeries and staff are being redeployed.

To help deal with filling ICUs, the province has sent already sent at least 18 patients to hospitals outside of the province. Right now Ontario has agreed to accept a minimum of 20 people, but that number has almost been reached. Discussions are currently underway with Saskatchewan and North Dakota for help.

Federal help is on the way. Twelve critical care nurses are expected next week with a potential total of 50, as other jurisdictions begin to offer help.

The Canadian Armed Forces are also offering up patient transportation services, being able to do one daily flight with two patients at a time. The patients chosen for transfer will be made by senior physicians and will be those in the middle ground of case severity, according to Gray.

Other federal help includes 50 plus Statistics Canada staff for contact tracing, one or two epidemiologists, and three medical lab techs for testing.

“With so much human resources being dedicated to COVID, there is still a health-care system and there are still patients that do not have COVID who need care,” said Gray.

The overall effect of the pandemic is unknown for non-COVID patients, as delayed surgeries and procedures are hard to track if those procedures are not scheduled according to Gray. However, he estimates there are thousands of Manitobans negatively impacted each week.

For example, the number of people waiting for cardiac surgery is up to 190, compared to 60 pre-COVID. Cancer diagnosis is estimated to be down by 25 per cent and there are 20,000 less pathology specimens compared year over year. That could indicate a high number of patients not being seen by a doctor or received a diagnosis.

“The more that patients wait, and more importantly, the longer they wait, the more chance there is that some of those patients are going to have a problem that should have picked up sooner,” said Gray.