WINNIPEG -- Doctors in Steinbach, Man. are pleading with people to follow public health measures amid a surge in cases of COVID-19.

It’s been putting pressure on the community’s hospital, where last week nurses had to triage patients in their vehicles.

Dr. Paul Foster has been working in the medicine unit at Bethesda Regional Health Centre since July, where he cares for patients with COVID-19.

Last Thursday evening, five days after finishing a week-long shift, he started experiencing symptoms himself and later tested positive.

“The worst flu-like symptoms I’ve had in my life,” Foster said. “Headache, congestion, terrible cough and chest pain, muscle aches –

the whole gamut.”

Foster said his COVID-19 symptoms have been mild in comparison to others.

With the hospital experiencing a surge in cases, he’s sharing his story in an effort to get people to take the virus seriously.

“I think the most important thing to understand is that this is very real and it’s getting worse by the day,” Foster said.

Steinbach, the site of a weekend rally against Manitoba’s public health measures, has been hit hard in recent weeks by COVID-19.

There are currently 329 active cases of COVID-19 in the Steinbach health district and so far, 17 people have died.

Late last week nurses at the hospital triaged patients in their cars amid the surge in cases.

“COVID is something completely different than I’ve ever seen,” said Dr. Jennifer Anderson, an emergency room physician now caring for COVID-19 patients at Bethesda Regional Health Centre. “It’s not just the regular flu. We don’t know who’s going to get really sick and who’s not.”

Anderson’s one of several Steinbach doctors who’ve signed a letter to the community pleading with people to follow public health guidelines to help the hospital cope.

“By the end of the week, we just had so many patients and very, very sick patients,” said Anderson. “I have never seen patients come in so sick, so quickly.”

A number of patients have been moved or transferred to other facilities, including those requiring intensive care. Surgeries have been limited to urgent and emergency cases only and frontline workers, like Anderson, have been redeployed to help care for people with COVID.

“We’re doing our best to help them,” said Anderson. “Wearing a mask, social distancing, washing your hands and trying to stay home as much as possible helps us to be able to help them.”

Work is also underway to create more waiting room space so staff don’t have to triage patients in their vehicles.

Foster said even though he was wearing personal protective equipment he suspects he contracted the virus in hospital.

“I would estimate that I had over 100 face-to-face encounters with confirmed COVID positive patients before I got infected,” said Foster.

With case counts high, he worries there’s going to be another surge once he’s cleared to return to work.

Across the province, 240 people are currently in hospital with COVID-19. A spokesperson for Shared Health said as of midnight, 90 of Manitoba’s 102 ICU beds were in use. 41 of those patients had COVID-19.