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Manitoba hospitals seeing surge, expecting rise in respiratory illness

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Pharmacies are trying to help with a spike in respiratory illnesses as intensive care units burst with patients.

Cold medicines may not have been on most people's Christmas lists, but at one pharmacy this holiday season - it's selling fast. Brett Roeland, the co-owner of Northway Pharmacy Brothers on Selkirk Avenue said over-the-counter medications like acetaminophen are in high demand.

"It's been very busy in the pharmacy,” Roeland said between greeting coughing patients. “A lot of people have been suffering from a wide range of illnesses, especially the flu, COVID, things like that."

Sometimes people come in with more than just the sniffles. Roeland said many people in the area seek pharmacist advice before going to a doctor.

"See if there might be something they can self treat with some over-the-counter medications,” he said. “Or maybe it's something that requires a visit to a doctor, maybe even something a little bit more severe that they might need to go to the emergency room."

The latest data from the province shows that between Dec. 10 and 16, there were 2,200 respiratory visits to emergency departments - which means hospital capacity is stretched thin.

Lanette Siragusa, CEO of Shared Health, said they are building critical care capacity as the surge continues. She said there are roughly 100 people in Intensive Care Units (ICU), with 30 per cent of those in ICU because of respiratory viruses.

"We have to take care of the sickest of the sick. And so it may mean looking at where staff comes from,” Siragusa said.

She said on Friday, a call went out to staff with intensive care unit training to volunteer for shifts during the holidays.

That call was echoed by Manitoba's Minister of Health, Seniors, and Long-term Care Uzoma Asagwara on Saturday.

"It's a big ask to say that we would appreciate greatly if these folks could find a capacity if you have the ability to pick up extra shifts,” they said.

On Saturday, Manitoba’s Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Brent Roussin said he is expecting an increase in illness over the next two weeks before things ease up.

Doctors Manitoba said in a statement to CTV News it's concerned about how the ongoing staffing shortages will affect access to healthcare.

“Shortages of doctors, nurses, and other health care workers are limiting hospital capacity in Winnipeg and across rural and northern Manitoba again this holiday season,” a spokesperson said.

Doctors Manitoba said it will be working with the province in the new year on ways to recruit and retain more healthcare staff in Manitoba.

As for staying out of the emergency department - Siragusa said vaccinations, staying home when sick, and hand washing will go a long way.

Siragusa said the health-care system is constantly reassessing to ensure there's space for those most in need of care.

"If you feel like you need some care from a medical professional we would encourage everyone to reach out,” Siragusa said.

Pharmacists Manitoba said it is working with the province on ways for pharmacists to provide more care options to Manitobans and keep Manitobans out of the doctor's office.

Back at the pharmacy - Roeland is hoping to help families get through the holidays.

"Come visit your pharmacists. Ask them questions,” Roeland said. “We are educated and we are trained to help you guys out. We're a resource here for you and we are extremely accessible." 

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