December 10, 2023

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Premier: I didn’t know of out-of-province patient transfers would be needed; NDP say it’s no excuse

Health officials and a cabinet minister tried Tuesday to absolve Premier Heather Stefanson of any prior knowledge Manitoba would need to transfer COVID-19 patients out of province before it happened last May while she was health minister. 

But NDP Leader Wab Kinew says that’s not something the government should be proud of.

“The Minister of Health is responsible for the most important department during a pandemic, and the fact that that person appears not to have been paying attention to one of the most crucial incidents during this whole COVID experience — that they’re now the premier, I think that’s not a good reflection of this government,” he said.

Stefanson’s insight into the need for patient transfers outside Manitoba has been scrutinized since the NDP revealed, during question period Monday a copy of Shared Health CEO Adam Topp’s calendar.

In it, the calendar reveals Topp had a meeting regarding Thunder Bay Regional Health Sciences Centre and ICU capacity on May 13, 2021.

Stefanson’s own calendar, which the NDP also received, states she, as health minister, received a briefing that day on ICU capacity, but it doesn’t specify whether the use of Thunder Bay, Ont.’s hospital was discussed.

Premier proven wrong

Five days later, the current premier proceeded to tell reporters the province could handle an additional 50 intensive-care patients — up to 170 — but later that same day, on May 18, she was proven wrong. Shared Health concluded it could not handle a single additional patient and sent the first two of three stable COVID-19 patients to Thunder Bay.

The NDP alleged on Monday that Stefanson knew about the Thunder Bay option and deliberately misled Manitobans when she suggested intensive care units in Manitoba had the space.

But the premier insists she only knew about the transfer after the decision was made on May 18.

In its own timeline of events, Shared Health said the May 13 meeting regarding Ontario ICU capacity did not include any personnel from Ontario. Health officials from the two provinces began speaking on May 14, and Topp spoke personally with leadership at the Thunder Bay hospital on May 16.

The hospital in Thunder Bay, Ont., absorbed the first of the 57 patients that Manitoba had to send to other provinces. (Thunder Bay Regional Health Sciences Centre)

When a reporter questioned whether there was a disconnect between health officials, who knew of the potential need for transfers, and Stefanson, who was apparently unaware, Gordon said clinicians are sometimes forced to make last-minute decisions and those discussions don’t get to ministers immediately. 

As an example, Gordon referred to the major multi-vehicle collision near Winnipeg’s Perimeter Highway a few hours earlier on Tuesday, which she had just become aware of.

“Standing here right now, I don’t know what’s happening in terms of the care of those people, but I know that the health system has sprung into action and it’s taking steps. Will they update me? Yes, they will, but it may be later today,” Gordon said in the mid-afternoon on Tuesday.

“It’s not a disconnect. It’s that the clinicians at the bedside are caring for the patient in real-time, and they provide updates as they are able to.”

Stefanson did not attend question period on Tuesday.

Kinew argued Stefanson should have been aware of the possibility, as Manitoba was on the verge of a “history-making event,” the first province to run out of room to care for its COVID patients, he said.

If Stefanson didn’t know in advance, it shows she “didn’t know what was happening in her department at the most crucial phase of the pandemic,” Kinew said. “If that’s the PC line today then I have a whole slew of new questions.”

Manitoba eventually sent a total of 57 COVID-19 patients out of the province as it struggled to cope with the pandemic’s third wave.

Between May 13 and 17 of last year, ICUs in Manitoba admitted 34 patients with COVID-19, which is half of the pre-pandemic capacity for critical care patients in the entire province (72 beds).