What Winnipeg can learn from pandemic response in Prairie Mountain

The rules Manitoba’s top doctor introduced in the Prairie Mountain Health region a month ago are popping up again, this time in and around its capital city. Today, Winnipeg and 17 nearby communities were moved to the orange, or 'restricted,' level on the province's pandemic response system.

Southwestern Manitoba region brought in mask mandate, limited gatherings for nearly a month

People in and around Winnipeg, pictured, have to wear masks in indoor public places and limit gatherings to 10 starting Monday. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

It was a strategy brought in to get a handle on booming case numbers before they got out of hand.

Now, the rules Manitoba's top doctor introduced in the province's Prairie Mountain Health region a month ago are popping up again, this time in and around its capital city.

On Monday, Winnipeg and 17 nearby communities were moved to the orange, or "restricted," level on the province's pandemic response system. 

The change means most of Manitoba's population will have to wear face masks in public indoor spaces and limit gatherings — whether indoors or outdoors — to a maximum of 10.

Many in Winnipeg appear to have welcomed the shift as the city's active caseload swells, though some business owners voiced concerns about the financial toll of the new measures.

The changes coming to part of Manitoba on Monday affect a geographically small region that comprises most of the province's population. (CBC)

The changes will stay for at least four weeks, Chief Provincial Public Health Officer Dr. Brent Roussin said on Friday. 

It's a timeframe that will allow for about two incubation periods of the illness to pass, and one that means many will have to rethink Thanksgiving plans they made for Oct. 12.

Case study of Prairie Mountain Health

Winnipeggers can learn from restrictions imposed in the Prairie Mountain Health region. On Aug. 24, code orange went into effect across the region, which covers a large part of southern Manitoba — including the province's second-largest city, Brandon.

At the time, Roussin said he was initiating code orange after Brandon alone had 100 active cases. At the same time, clusters in communal-living situations and among employees at the Maple Leaf pork processing plant in Brandon were growing as well.

The daily number of positive COVID-19 cases in the Prairie Mountain Health region dropped after the province made masks mandatory in public settings and restricted group sizes. (Jacques Marcoux/CBC)

While Brandon had some of the province's highest COVID-19 numbers, many of the gatherings that helped spread the virus happened outside the city, Roussin said, which is why rules applied to the entire health region.

For the month of August leading up to the restrictions, case numbers steadily increased in the health region, often seeing the daily tally rise by 15 or more cases. On one particularly concerning day, there were 68 new positive cases.

That is, until a week after the tightened restrictions were put in place. By September, daily tallies were back in the single digits.

Brandon set up a second COVID-19 testing site after people in the region faced long lines to get tested. (Ian Froese/CBC)

That was good news for Brandon's mayor.

Rick Chrest said in an interview earlier this month that he hopes Brandon residents will continue the public health measures, even though they aren't mandatory anymore.

"It's not that much to ask to carry on with the hand sanitizing, the physical distancing, wearing masks most of the time that you can," Chrest said. "[It] certainly goes a long way to keeping these numbers tamped down."

He also hopes the uptick in cases and tightening of restrictions remain in the minds of Brandon residents as a reminder of how one case can balloon into an outbreak. 

"We really had to rally our community and put our nose to the grindstone on this thing, and they did," he said.

Winnipeg's COVID-19 situation

Manitoba's capital is in a similar spot, but with fewer known clusters, a growing test positivity rate and more communal spread.

An increasing number of the cases and exposures in the capital city involved people in their 20s who were bar-hopping when they got infected, Roussin said.

On Friday, Manitoba's COVID-19 test positivity rate — a rolling, five-day average of the tests that come back positive — was up to 2.6 per cent. In Winnipeg, that number is roughly 3.1 per cent, Roussin said.

That's still lower than the rate in the Prairie Mountain Health region when that area was moved to the orange level, he said, but community spread of the illness is a bigger problem in Winnipeg than it was in Prairie Mountain.

Roussin said he had a good sense of how the virus was being spread in Prairie Mountain, but transmission patterns in Winnipeg are less clear, which led to the new restrictions that came into force on Monday.

There were 490 active cases of COVID-19 in Winnipeg as of Sunday, out of 589 in total.

Lessons for Winnipeg

As shown by the data coming out of the Prairie Mountain Health region, mandatory mask rules and limiting gathering sizes appear to have worked to reduce the active caseload.

"Manitobans in [the] Prairie Mountain Health region really stepped up in August and until now to really flatten that curve," Roussin said after the orange level was lowered to yellow in that region on Sept. 18.

It's also hopefully increasing people's acceptance of messaging from public health officials, Chrest said.

Even once Winnipeg has gotten the COVID-19 caseload down to a manageable level, Brandon business owner Ana Beltran says the work isn't over.

"It is not done. This continues," she said. "We cannot put our hands up, we have to continue doing what we're doing until this is done."

With files from Riley Laychuk