Life on the Front Line: The First Look at Manitoba’s ‘COVID-19 Red Zone’ Units


WINNIPEG – Restricted Access – the simple warning on the doors of what was once an orthopedic unit at the Health Sciences Center in Winnipeg. Behind those doors is a “COVID-19 red zone” where frontline workers care for some of the sickest and most contagious patients in the province.
Since the pandemic first hit Manitoba in March, nearly every unit in the Health Sciences Unit has been forced to make changes to deal with a surge in infectious patients.

CTV News got a first glimpse of one of Manitoba’s “COVID-19 red zones” and a glimpse of the impact of the pandemic on the health care system and those working on the front lines.


Before patients with symptoms of the virus reach the “red zone,” they are tested for COVID-19 and wait in a specialized isolation area. The wait can sometimes be up to eight hours and can create a bottleneck in the emergency room as microbiologists work to perform tests in a hospital lab.

The Microbiology Lab at the Health Sciences Center in Winnipeg on Tuesday, December 8, 2020 (MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

The pandemic has essentially doubled their workload.

“It has been said that the emergency services don’t seem very busy, but I assure you we feel like we are very busy,” said Dr Shelly Zubert, deputy director of the emergency department at HSC.

In the department there is a trauma room, where patients requiring resuscitation are brought. It begins with a call for emergency medical services bringing in the patient. Zubert said emergency crews have 30 seconds to dress in full personal protective equipment (PPE). and prepare for the incoming patient.

“With the community spreading and the rate of positivity in our community, we have to assume that many of these arriving patients have exposures to COVID in the community,” she said.

“Each time these patients arrive, it becomes more and more important to receive these patients in a safe manner.

The Adult Emergency Department at the Health Sciences Center in Winnipeg on Tuesday, December 8, 2020 (MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

Patients are moved from the emergency room to different COVID-19 units – some units have plastic curtains to create a protective barrier around the patient, others have full cubicles for each incoming patient.


Anna Marie Papiz, director of a 30-bed orthopedic unit at HSC that has been converted to a red zone, said the change has been a big learning curve for staff.

“Working on a red zone is very different from working on a normal medical or surgical unit,” she says.

Even mundane tasks, like sending dirty laundry to the wash or taking out the garbage, have become more difficult. Personnel entering these units must wear PPE and must leave their personal effects outside.

“Everything has changed for them and it has been difficult, but this unit has been a huge support for each other. ”

Papiz’s unit is just one of six units at HSC that has been converted to handle patients with COVID-19. There are eight other COVID-19 units in hospitals in the Winnipeg Health Region, as well as one in the Prairie Mountain Health Region and one in the Southern Health Region.

One COVID-19 unitA COVID-19 unit (which was once an orthopedic surgery unit) at the Health Sciences Center in Winnipeg on Tuesday, December 8, 2020 (MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

As these healthcare workers deal with the virus closely every day, Papiz said leaving the “red zone” can cause anxiety.

“They know these patients are COVID positive patients and they can wear all that extra PPE,” she said. “The room that scares them the most is going outside these areas, and even outside the walls of this facility, where we don’t know who might be carrying this virus. ”

Inside the HSC medical intensive care unit – all 20 beds are usually full, with both positive and negative COVID patients.

IN IMAGES: Red zone: on the front line of the COVID-19 pandemic in Manitoba

Dr Bojan Paunovic, director of the intensive care site at HSC, said staff at four different hospitals manage 120 intensive care beds.

“It’s over 150 percent capacity, it’s a level that we as a healthcare system probably expects to reach to deal with this, but it’s not a level that goes on forever. sustainable, ”he said.

Not only are staff caring for more patients, they also face a heavier workload – constantly monitoring and assessing patients to see if they are ready to be transferred to a less acute area. and make room for others to be admitted.

“In the long run, to support this, other parts of the system had to come in to help. ”


Paunovic said the redeployment of these staff means other parts of the healthcare system are not delivering care as they should – which is why many HSC operating rooms are empty.

While the daily tasks of health workers have changed, their jobs remain the same: keeping people alive. Dr Edward Buchel, chief of surgeries at HSC, said it comes at a cost that healthy Manitobans pay.

An operating room in the empty day surgery unit atAn operating room in the empty day surgery unit at the Health Sciences Center in Winnipeg on Tuesday, December 8, 2020 (MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

More COVID-19 patients admitted to hospitals means more beds are needed to treat them.

“We need staff with these beds. We need human beings to take care of other human beings, ”said Buchel.

Much of this staff is available because the province is canceling elective and elective surgeries. Buchel said the number of surgeries had been cut in half in Manitoba.

“We are using the resources that would normally be allocated to these people, to keep our COVID positive patients in our hospital,” Buchel said.

As urgent surgeries continue – these include limb surgeries, life-threatening injuries, trauma and cancer – what Buchel called “quality of life” surgeries are being canceled.

Young Manitobans may not be at high risk of serious consequences from the virus, but Buchel said that if, for example, they blew a knee while skiing or skating and need surgery – they don’t will have no luck.

Dr. Ed Buchel, Provincial Specialty Head of SurgeryDr. Ed Buchel, responsible for the provincial specialty of surgery, walks the empty hallways of the day surgery unit at the Health Sciences Center in Winnipeg on Tuesday, December 8, 2020 (MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

“You need your ACL repaired, you have a hip that needs to be replaced, or you have breast cancer that needs reconstruction; these have disappeared, ”he said.

“We don’t do that. We do whatever needs to be done to keep you alive, to keep your members. ”


Shared Health said about 5,300 surgeries were canceled or postponed during the first wave of the pandemic in Manitoba, causing a backlog of surgeries that was still being cleared when the second wave of the pandemic hit.

It is estimated that 2,750 surgeries have been canceled or postponed since a surgical slowdown began on October 26.

For Manitobans who have had canceled surgery, they may be given medication to help manage pain while they wait.

Shared Health said that if healthcare workers believe that a prolonged delay in surgery will have a long-term negative effect on a person’s health, their surgery will be scheduled.

Buchel said the health system is checking these people to make sure they don’t get sicker.

“We wait, we keep watching and we adapt. ”

This is the first part of a three-part series titled “Red Zone: On the Front Line of the COVID-19 Pandemic in Manitoba” from CTV News giving Manitobans a more in-depth look at the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. COVID-19 on our health care system.

Part two in this series will be released on December 18, showing the impact of COVID-19 on end-of-life care and a family’s final farewell during a pandemic.


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