A southern Manitoba hospital physician says staff are exhausted by a recent crush of admissions, but they’re also up against something else that’s draining energy and morale.
Staff at Boundary Trails Health Centre are routinely hearing from sick and unvaccinated patients who believe the pandemic is a hoax — some remaining defiant even on the brink of death.
“We hear this almost every day, and I know that’s startling,” said Dr. Ganesan Abbu. “It’s difficult … to know that almost 100 per cent of our admissions have not been vaccinated.”
Abbu is an anesthetist and special care unit doctor at Boundary Trails, located over 100 kilometres southwest of Winnipeg and between Morden and Winkler.
The district surrounding the two small cities has the lowest vaccination rate in the province, according to provincial data.
More and more patients have flowed in during the past two weeks amid Manitoba’s third wave. Abbu says he and many coworkers are waking up before dawn to start work lately just to keep up.
The hospital has converted two of its medicine and surgery units into COVID-19 areas, he said. The hospital also experienced an oxygen shortage over the weekend based on the increasing number of COVID-19 patients being put on ventilators.
Boundary Trails nurses and the lone respiratory therapist in the hospital have shouldered the heaviest workload burden, said Abbu.
Staff are also being confronted with something beyond the painstaking hours caring for more people than usual.
“I think nurses have found it difficult to handle a community, certain segments of the community, who believe that this is a hoax, that the virus doesn’t exist, and other untruths, like the vaccine is going to put a chip into each one of us who’s been vaccinated and people will be able to track us,” he said.
“It flies in the face of the efforts of nurses and health-care staff who are really extending themselves to help the community in need.”
Some staff are having to deal with family members who are frustrated they can’t see their loved ones in hospital or believe they died of something other than COVID-19.
It’s not uncommon for people to flout rules and enter the hospital without a mask on either, he said.
“They say, you know, it’s a hoax,” he said. “We hear this all the time.”
Abbu has personally experienced patients who, even nearing death, remained in denial and continued to assert untruths about the pandemic.
“I’ve had two patients who have died and even right until the time that they died, they didn’t believe that they had it,” Abbu said.
“It’s not as though we are trying to get the patient to acknowledge that they have COVID before they die. These patients are so much in denial, they are volunteering this information.”
Abbu said one patient who didn’t believe they had COVID-19 went home and later died. The family of another patient who died didn’t believe it was due to COVID-19 and asked if they could have an autopsy to confirm, he said.
Though Abbu says it’s only a “vociferous minority” of people in the Southern Health Region who don’t take COVID-19 seriously, what Boundary Trails staff are seeing in the hospital is part of a larger issue.
Southern Health has the lowest vaccine uptake rates by region in Manitoba. Just over 40 per cent of people there have received at least one dose, which is about 15 to 20 per cent lower than any of the other four regions.
Manitoba health officials have had to team up with local religious and community leaders recently to try to spur vaccine uptake. Though the needle appears to be moving in the right direction in some communities, progress is slow.
As of Friday, about 12 per cent of the Stanley health district, which surrounds Winkler and Morden, had received a dose — a figure twice what it was a month ago.
Rates in Winkler health district increased from just shy of 14 per cent late last month to almost 24 per cent. Vaccination rates were 49 per cent in the Morden health district specifically on Friday, compared to 36 per cent in neighbouring Altona health district, and about 37 per cent in Hanover and Steinbach districts.
Provincial officials and religious leaders in the south have explained that vaccine hesitancy is linked to distrust of government with roots that stretch back decades or longer. That includes religious groups who have experienced historic harms at the hand of governments abroad before immigrating to Canada, including Mennonite communities.
Abbu said if he encounters a patient in the clinic who is relatively well who brings up false notions of the pandemic, he may talk to them about the evidence to the contrary.
He takes a different tack when dealing with gravely ill patients, especially when they’re laid up in a hospital bed teetering on the brink.
“I try never to challenge a patient, not in that situation,” he said.
“You need to earn their trust. They have to believe that you’re going to do everything possible to help them survive this, and that is what I want.”
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