Work has begun on a long-promised expansion of the St. Boniface Hospital's emergency room.

Manitoba Premier Heather Stefanson says the $141-million project will triple the size of the Winnipeg hospital's emergency department and improve patient flow.

The expansion was promised by former premier Brian Pallister in the 2019 provincial election and had been recommended by a group that reviewed hospital wait times in 2017.

The head of the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority has been warning of increasing wait times in ERs.

In a memo to staff last week, chief executive officer Mike Nader said hospitals are facing a spike in COVID-19 admissions combined with historic staff shortages due to sick time.

The Progressive Conservative government has no plans to reintroduce restrictions, including indoor mask requirements, and is focusing instead on promoting vaccines.

"We take advice from public health when it comes to this and … we should encourage as many Manitobans to get vaccinated, get their boosters," Stefanson said Tuesday.

"That is what is keeping people out of hospital and out of (intensive care units)."

Nader said efforts are being made to reduce wait times, including ensuring that people with less severe health concerns go to an urgent care centre or clinic instead of a hospital emergency department.

"Our paramedics are actively assessing patients throughout Winnipeg and determining which site they could direct them to to receive the care," he said.

Manitoba hospitals have been facing high patient loads throughout much of the pandemic. The number of patients in intensive care, including non-COVID-19 patients, dropped to 88 Tuesday from peaks of more than 100. 

The new total is still above the province's normal intensive care capacity before the pandemic.

The Opposition New Democrats said the government failed to protect health capacity when it cut emergency departments at three other Winnipeg hospitals in 2017.

"The biggest thing that has come back to hurt Manitobans, time and time again, is the fact that we lost beds when the Conservatives started to close emergency rooms in Winnipeg," NDP Leader Wab Kinew said.

"Our system lost capacity, our system lost nurses, and now it's the patients who are feeling the brunt of the impact."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 26, 2022.