Manitoba·Analysis

The mid-July mirage: The premature pandemic holiday ends in Manitoba

The pandemic is back and worse than ever in Manitoba, by a number of measures.

Fuelled by infections outside Winnipeg, the active caseload creeps higher

A COVID-19 drive-through sampling site on in Winnipeg, in July. Manitoba's pandemic holiday is over. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

Less than a month ago, Manitobans could look at the pandemic situation pretty much anywhere else on the planet and feel fairly smug.

This province went weeks without a positive COVID-19 case in early July. The active caseload went down to a single patient.

It felt like the worldwide plague had passed right over Manitoba, like so many corporate head offices, major touring acts and international travellers before.

Now, the pandemic is back and worse than ever in Manitoba, by a couple of measures.

There are now 182 active cases of COVID-19 in this province. The provincial COVID-19 statistics dashboard says that means more Manitobans are known to be infected with the virus now than at any other point since the pandemic started, although a bulletin on April 7 indicated there were 193 active cases in the province.

In those anxious days of early April, the province lurched into a full lockdown after a slew of returning international travellers caused a spike of cases in the Winnipeg health region.

At the time, tensions ran high, primarily in Winnipeg, because nobody knew what was about to happen. The potential exposure of more than 100 Health Sciences Centre staff in a matter of days led to fears that Manitoba hospitals would soon be overwhelmed the way facilities in New York City, Spain and Italy already had.

That nightmare scenario failed to materialize, thanks to provincial public health orders and a population that did its best to observe them.

The message from the province at the time was constant and consistent: Stay home. Wash your hands. Keep your distance from strangers.

Now, the message from the province is different. "We have to learn to live with the virus," is the new mantra from Dr. Brent Roussin, the chief provincial public health officer.

So far, it's a lesson we have yet to master.

(Jacques Marcoux/CBC)

The record active caseload is not distributed evenly across the province. Winnipeg, the COVID-19 hot spot during the spring, is now home to only 22 of Manitoba's 182 active cases.

To put it another way: The city with more than two-thirds of Manitoba's population owns only 12 per cent of the cases.

The Prairie Mountain Health region has 76 cases, mainly because of a cluster — an outbreak, really — of dozens of cases in Brandon.

The Interlake-Eastern region has 43 active cases. The Southern region has 41.

It is abundantly clear the virus is spreading fastest outside the Perimeter Highway, where ordinary folks could be forgiven back in April for believing COVID-19 was just a big-city disease.

Now, the good people of Brandon, Blumenort and Lac du Bonnet are learning what it's like to have the virus in their midst, or at least in the next village over.

Thanks to the ex-urban outbreak, Manitoba is no longer one of Canada's most pandemic-free provinces. On Sunday, this province actually ranked No. 3 in active cases per capita, behind only Quebec, which has never quite gotten the virus under control, and Alberta, which is seeing a resurgence in cases.

Ironically, Manitoba now has more active cases of COVID-19 on a per-capita basis than Ontario, most of which is still subject to a 14-day quarantine, should someone from Toronto or Terrace Bay still choose to visit.

The smugness we felt in July is gone. The advantage we thought we had was a mirage.

(Jacques Marcoux/CBC)

Manitoba is not experiencing a second wave of the virus; rather, much of the province is only now experiencing the first wave.

As Dr. Roussin repeatedly says, Manitobans aren't helpless. We can still slow the spread of the virus by washing our hands, keeping our distance from other people and, above all, avoiding indoor gatherings, where the virus spreads most easily.

The only difference is we are no longer being told to stay home. That could change, if the outbreak worsens and Health Minister Cameron Friesen follows through on last week's pledge to tighten pandemic restrictions on a regional basis, rather than provincewide.

But for now, we are told to "learn to live with the virus," which means going out to work and spending and keeping the economy sputtering along, while doing what we can to avoid getting sick or sickening others.

Provincewide pandemic restrictions will only return if a number of indicators go off the charts.

One is the five-day positivity rate — the ratio of positive COVID-19 tests to the total number of samples in a given period — which has climbed from zero to 1.45 per cent in less than a month.

The active caseload also matters, though mainly as an early indicator of what may soon happen to a more critical measure: the availability of acute-care hospital beds and intensive-care beds.

Around the world, somewhere between two and six per cent of active COVID-19 cases are sick enough to require hospitalization. If Manitoba hospitals start losing the capacity to treat the most severe COVID-19 patients, you can expect another lockdown.

A renewed shortage of protective equipment could also bring the reopened economy screeching back to a close. So would a significant rise in cases of the disease that are deemed to be the result of community transmission — that is, without a known transmission chain.

At the moment, only two of these indicators — the active caseload and the positivity rate — are causes for concern. That is the main reason Dr. Roussin isn't promising other action at this moment.

It is incumbent on the province to further elucidate what specific conditions would trigger that action. Some clarity would go a long way to calming the nerves of Manitoba parents who are concerned about sending their kids back to school in September.

Manitobans may look back at mid-July as the eye in the COVID-19 storm — those few, blissful weeks when we all enjoyed a pandemic reprieve.

It's safe to say the holiday is over. 

(Jacques Marcoux/CBC)

Clarifications

  • We initially reported that Sunday's total of 182 was the highest active case total in Manitoba during the pandemic, based on information on the online provincial COVID-19 statistics dashboard. However, a daily bulletin issued on April 7 indicated there were 193 active cases on that day.
    Aug 10, 2020 12:18 PM CT

About the Author

Bartley Kives

Reporter, CBC Manitoba

Reporter Bartley Kives joined CBC Manitoba in 2016. Prior to that, he spent three years at the Winnipeg Sun and 18 at the Winnipeg Free Press, writing about politics, music, food and outdoor recreation. He's the author of the Canadian bestseller A Daytripper's Guide to Manitoba: Exploring Canada's Undiscovered Province and co-author of both Stuck in the Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg and Stuck In The Middle 2: Defining Views of Manitoba. His work has also appeared in publications such as the Guardian and Explore magazine.

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