One-third of COVID-19 patients in Manitoba’s ICUs died in first year of pandemic

About a third of patients with COVID-19 who ended up in intensive care in Manitoba died, according to the medical lead for adult critical care in the province. 

“When you look historically at data, non-COVID patients, we’re looking at a 20 per cent mortality rate,” said Dr. Bojan Paunovic, referring to patients treated inside Manitoba’s intensive care units.

“With COVID we were seeing upwards of 30 to 35 per cent, which is a lot more deaths and also in a much more compressed time period.” 

Over the last year, more than 900 people died from COVID-19 in Manitoba, according to the province. 

Paunovic described this past year as unlike any other he’s seen. 

“We’ve had bad flu seasons,” said Paunovic. “Last January was one of our more busy flu seasons in a few years and that doesn’t even compare to what we’ve gone through.”

He said compared to the same time period last year, when intensive care units admitted about 100 influenza cases, this year they saw more than 400 COVID-19 patients. He said people with COVID-19 are sicker, more likely to require intensive care, more likely to need a ventilator and more likely to die.

“This is significantly different than anything we’ve experienced before.”

Some of the sickest COVID-19 patients can require long stays in hospital. He said about a quarter of the patients in ICU stay in hospital for more than two weeks, and portions of those people can be in hospital for over a month.  

“People get weaker, their lungs are damaged and it takes longer to get off the ventilator,” he said, adding the patients are also at risk for other complications. 

Dr. Bojan Paunovic is the medical lead for adult critical care in Manitoba. (Marina von Stackelberg/CBC News)

Both the number of new COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations have declined in recent weeks. 

The province said as of Thursday, there were 156 people in Manitoba hospitals due to the virus, including 22 patients in intensive care. 

But at times late last year, the total number of people in Manitoba hospitals with COVID-19 neared 400.

Paunovic said while lower case counts are a relief, about 1 to 1.5 per cent of new infections will translate into people needing to be admitted into intensive care — meaning if case numbers increase, hospitals can quickly become stretched to their limits.  

He said keeping the number of new infections low needs to remain a priority. 

“There is, you know, the concern of uncertainty,” he said. 

Virus variants add new unknown

Part of the unknown is how new coronavirus variants of will affect Manitoba. 

So far, Manitoba has identified 22 of the virus variants of concern — including 11 cases of B117, which was first identified in the United Kingdom, and 11 cases of B1351, which is the variant first discovered in South Africa.  

On Thursday, the province warned Manitoba of potential public exposures to B117 at three Winnipeg businesses.

As of Wednesday, Paunovic said he wasn’t aware of any patients who had been infected with a variant of concern in one of Manitoba’s intensive care units. 

Researchers have said the virus variant B117 is more infectious and more deadly. 

Paunovic said the number of cases involving the variants of concern in Manitoba are still quite low and it’s unclear how they could affect future surges in the province, or whether they will require different treatment. 

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