WINNIPEG -- Manitoba’s health care system is being stretched thin by the surge in COVID-19 cases in the Winnipeg region.

Critical care beds are close to full, the number of hospitalizations is breaking records daily and some surgeries have now been cancelled, in part, to help staff meet needs in other areas.

 Health officials said one of the main issues right now is staffing.

 A total of 37 health care workers are currently away with COVID-19. Many more staff are isolating and off the job.

 That’s putting additional stress on an already strained system.

 John Dobbin’s 82-year-old parents were being treated in separate units at Victoria General Hospital last week, where they both tested positive for COVID-19.

It’s one of two city hospitals dealing with outbreaks.

 “You can imagine it’s done a lot of damage to the staffing levels,” said Dobbin during a Zoom interview.

He had been to the hospital for a visit prior to outbreak protocols kicking in and had to get tested himself. While the results came back negative, Dobbin remains in isolation.

“I mean they’ve had people come in to take over but some of your most skilled people are now sick.”

According to numbers provided by the province Wednesday, there are 28 cases linked to outbreaks in two units at Victoria General Hospital and 23 to outbreaks in three units at St. Boniface Hospital.

Across the system, occupancy within ICUs is at 92 per cent, which translates into 71 critical care beds in use, 35 patients ventilated (not all COVID-19-related) and only six empty critical care beds.

“The capacity is continuing to be further stretched,” said Lanette Siragusa, Shared Health’s chief nursing officer and provincial lead on health system integration and quality. 

Siragusa said officials are exploring ways to care for patients in other units should the system exceed capacity and stressed no one will be denied care.

The wave of COVID-19 cases has resulted in the cancellation of 43 surgeries, mainly at St. Boniface, either because of changes in personal protective equipment to protect staff or because staff are in isolation away from work.

“As cases increase in the community they are also increasing among healthcare workers,” said Siragusa. “While the vast majority of our healthcare worker cases were contracted outside of work and not in the workplace there are unavoidable challenges.”

Since the pandemic started, Siragusa said 218 health care workers provincewide have tested positive for COVID-19.

There are 37 active cases across Manitoba, mainly in Winnipeg, and several more staff members in isolation due to potential exposure.

Manitoba Nurses’ Union president Darlene Jackson said reinforcements are needed.

“It’s disappointing we’re in a position, where we’re scrambling to cover shifts all the time and we’re in a second wave,” said Jackson.

Siragusa said redeployment, recruitment and hiring efforts are ongoing – noting several people have been hired in the past day.

“This includes six registered nurses, four unit assistants, four physiotherapists, a speech-language pathologist and a manager of COVID screening,” said Siragusa.

She said the nursing vacancy rate is currently at 14 per cent compared to 16 per cent at this time last year. Siragusa said that means 115 additional nursing positions are now filled compared to last year.

Dobbin said his parents were initially asymptomatic after testing positive for COVID-19 but found out on Wednesday his dad wasn’t doing so well. 

He said since testing positive in Victoria General Hospital, his parents have both been moved to COVID-19 wards in other hospitals — at Grace Hospital and St. Boniface.

He’s not sure how or where they contracted the virus but he said it hasn’t been a problem at the assisted living complex where they reside. He said they spent Thanksgiving in their own place, separated from family.