‘Triple threat’ of respiratory illness in Manitoba

With cases of respiratory virus-related illnesses rising in Manitoba, doctors are encouraging people to follow COVID-19-style prevention techniques to avoid getting sick.

During a virtual press conference held by Doctors Manitoba on Wednesday, Candace Bradshaw, president of the organization that represents more than 4,000 physicians across the province, said the risk to Manitobans’ health and well-being from respiratory viruses is “escalating.”

“Respiratory viruses are increasingly circulating in the province right now. This includes flu, COVID-19 … and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV).”

The three illnesses are a “triple threat” that pose a serious risk for many Manitobans, sometimes resulting in hospitalization, treatment in intensive care and even death, Bradshaw said.

In a recent Doctors Manitoba survey of physicians, 93 per cent of respondents said they were concerned about the health and well-being of Manitobans this fall and winter due to how cold and flu season has progressed so far. Hospitals are already struggling to keep up with “rapidly increasing” patient volumes, especially in children’s emergency rooms.

“Physicians are increasingly concerned by what we’re seeing,” Bradshaw said.

One way that Manitobans can do their part to reduce the spread of any virus is to wear a mask in public spaces or poorly ventilated areas, wash and sanitize hands frequently, stay at home when sick and get the flu and COVID-19 booster shots. Keeping the province healthy hinges on Manitobans stepping up and following these recommendations, Bradshaw said.

“Your help is needed to slow the spread of these viruses and protect your friends, family and those around you.”

Young Manitobans are at particular risk, said Dr. Michael Boroditsky, an obstetrician and gynecologist and president-elect of Doctors Manitoba. Specifically, RSV and COVID-19 are both causing an increase in emergency care.

“We’re also seeing them going to the children’s emergency departments in huge numbers, and medical departments … are also seeing a lot of families coming in seeking care for their children in our offices,” Boroditsky said.

Many hospitals are already at capacity, which Bradshaw said is alarming.

“I’m not sure that I can honestly say that there is capacity for even one patient at this very second. Things are that tight,” Bradshaw said.

“Everyone is working hard. Everyone wants to get you in as quickly as possible and it may be a wait, but please just be patient and understand that we’re doing the best we can, and we do want to help you.”

RSV disproportionately affects newborns, especially premature ones, and infants with underlying heart and lung conditions. But Boroditsky said he’s also increasingly seeing influenza in newborns and children. And while there is medicine that can treat RSV, it has been shown to work fastest in those at highest risk. Most adults and older children typically see very mild cases of the illness, he said.

“For most of us, it’s about protecting the most vulnerable and reducing the spread of RSV using the same precautions as recommended for influenza and COVID-19 … [which is] very much still around.”

While children tend to experience milder COVID symptoms than adults, Boroditsky said doctors are seeing children with the illness in intensive care units. For this reason, he said it’s still important to get the COVID-19 vaccine and booster and urged mask wearing.

Bradshaw said there’s reason to be hopeful, however, judging by how many people are getting their COVID-19 and influenza vaccines.

“I’m a family doctor, so I work in a primary care clinic. I don’t think we’ve ever vaccinated as many people as we have this season,” she said. “We really are putting in all the extra efforts into the vaccinations this year.”

Prairie Mountain Health didn’t respond to a request for comment regarding local hospital capacity by press time.

Miranda Leybourne, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Brandon Sun