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In her 13 years as a nurse, Sarah Neufeld has never experienced a shift like last weekend.

Patients, many having tested positive for COVID-19, were being triaged in their vehicles while waiting to be admitted to Bethesda Regional Health Centre in Steinbach, about 60 kilometres southeast of Winnipeg. Others received treatment in ambulance bays as the community’s small emergency room struggled to keep up with a recent – and continuing – surge in COVID-19 cases.

“We’re used to having a somewhat busy emergency department,” said the registered nurse, but “it was chaos.”

With a population just under 16,000, Steinbach has more COVID-19 cases per capita than any other city in Canada; 339 active cases, 310 recoveries and 18 deaths so far. Its 84-bed hospital doesn’t have critical-care facilities; patients requiring intensive care are transferred to other hospitals, including one in Brandon, about a three-hour drive to the west.

Manitoba reported an additional 475 COVID-19 cases Thursday and eight more deaths, bringing the number of fatalities in the province to 198. New restrictions aimed at curbing infections went into effect overnight and Manitobans now risk a fine in most cases if they invite visitors into their home.

“Things were much worse over the weekend” at the hospital, said Christo Minnaar, Bethesda’s chief of staff. “I heard there were 10 ambulances coming in, half an hour apart, with older patients – hypoxic – overwhelming our resources.”

Dr. Minnaar didn’t witness the backlog himself because he was self-isolating, awaiting the results of a COVID-19 test. At one point last week, 50 per cent of nurses at Bethesda were absent – either because they’d tested positive for the virus or were waiting for test results – further straining the health centre’s capacity to cope with incoming patients.

Darlene Jackson, president of the Manitoba Nurses Union, said staff at the facility are doing everything they can to manage the rising pandemic tide, including working up to 16 hours without taking a break, but that her members are growing increasingly concerned.

“We are not on top of this virus,” she said. “This pandemic has just shown how little flex we have in our health care system.”

Bethesda was not prepared for the second wave, she said, adding that the same is true of most rural and northern health facilities in Manitoba. “This government had a few months to bolster staff and get a really concrete plan in place, because we were more than aware that Wave 2 was going to be worse than Wave 1. We saw it in other countries, so why would we think in Canada we’d be any different?”

Doctors in Steinbach published an open letter to the community this week, pleading with citizens to adhere to health ordinances.

Ms. Jackson echoed the sentiment. “Those nurses out there are just asking the public to do their part, follow public-health instructions and stay home, limit social contact, only go out for essentials,” she said. “Please, help us.”

Steinbach has, nevertheless, seen recent pushback against regulations from a small group of anti-mask protesters, in addition to the rising case numbers.

With many businesses closed under a provincewide code red, Steinbach’s Main Street was quiet Thursday morning. Only a few shoppers walked into banks and stores selling groceries along the city’s main drag.

Susan Loewen was among the masked customers visiting Giant Tiger and said she was trying to limit her shopping to once a week. “I just don’t like having some things delivered, but we are being very careful,” the retiree said.

It was a far different scene one week ago, when anti-mask protesters and conspiracy theorists gathered in Steinbach – only blocks away from where Bethesda staff were fighting the pandemic – in defiance of provincial health orders. Among them was Lewis Weiss, the reeve for the nearby Rural Municipality of La Broquerie, who spoke at the event and subsequently received a $1,296 ticket from conservation officers for violating a public-health order.

“The lawlessness that occurred, especially with the timing, was unthinkable,” said Damian Penner, a Steinbach city councillor. “I truly believe we have democratic freedom and the right to protest. However, you also have to follow the rule of law.”

Mr. Penner owns and operates Rocco’s Pizzeria along with his wife, Jodi, and said pandemic restrictions have been “devastating” for himself and other business owners in the community. He urged people to follow public-health orders if they want life to eventually return to normal. He commended Steinbach for its generosity toward those struggling financially amid the province’s second lockdown.

Back at Bethesda, Dr. Minnaar said there have been improvements in recent days, citing “fantastic” collaboration between regional hospitals and recent government approval for additional staff. But finding more health care workers could prove challenging; provincial officials have repeatedly called on retired health professionals to return to work to help fill vacancies.

Ms. Neufeld said basic items, such as IV pumps and commodes, are also in short supply. “We have to run around from room to room with a commode, sanitize it and sterilize it, then give it to the next patient. The commode is still warm by the time they get it,” she said. “We were not prepared.”

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