The 3rd wave appears to have crested in Manitoba, but rough water still lies ahead

After watching COVID-19's third wave surge out of control, Manitoba has reached a perplexing place where positive pandemic indicators have emerged at the same time as the hospital crisis worsens.

Even as case counts drop, the number of COVID-19 patients in ICU continues to rise

The number of patients requiring intensive care could climb even higher in the next few weeks as even a fraction of the 12,000 Manitobans who contracted COVID-19 in May get severely sick. (Mikaela MacKenzie/The Canadian Press pool)

After watching COVID-19's third wave surge out of control, Manitoba has reached a perplexing place where positive pandemic indicators have emerged at the same time as the hospital crisis worsens.

As of Tuesday, a record 109 Manitoban COVID-19 patients were sick enough to require intensive care. That included 37 patients transferred to hospitals out of province because there was no capacity to treat them adequately in Winnipeg and Brandon.

The total number of COVID patients now in ICUs is no surprise. The volume of critically ill COVID patients is right in line with projections unveiled by the province in the middle of May. 

Those ICU numbers may climb even further in the coming weeks, as a fraction of the 12,000 Manitobans who contracted COVID-19 in the month of May get sick enough to require intensive care.

The good news is the number of new cases is finally on the wane. The third wave of the pandemic appears to have crested, at least in terms of new infections.

Manitoba hit the peak of its third wave on May 22, when the seven-day average daily case count hit a pandemic high of 482 new infections.

The seven-day average case count declined to 327 on Tuesday. That's a drop of one-third in only 10 days.

That trend may continue, thanks to a combination of pandemic restrictions and the steady rise in the number of COVID-19 vaccinations. As of Tuesday, 62 per cent of Manitobans age 12 and up had at least one dose in their arms.

But while fewer people are now getting sick, more people who already got sick are getting desperately ill.

Province still in worst outbreak

It may be weeks before the pressure on intensive care wards recedes to the point where Manitoba Shared Health can stop transferring ICU patients by air to Ontario.

Once that emergency valve is no longer needed, hospitals won't be out of the woods, but the end of emergency transfers will be a sign the pandemic situation in this province has gone from desperate to merely critical.

Before that, it will be too soon for public health officials to consider reducing restrictions in a substantial manner.

Allowing 500 fully vaccinated health-care workers to attend tonight's Winnipeg-Montreal second-round Stanley Cup playoff game appears to be a symbolic gesture for a province that is still suffering through what's currently the worst COVID-19 outbreak in Canada or the United States.

"I think we should take that as a sign of some small amount of optimism that we can start to get our lives back here in Manitoba," Premier Brian Pallister said Tuesday during a news briefing.

Winnipeg's Kyle Connor scores against Montreal goaltender Carey Price during the Jets' 4-3 overtime win against the Canadiens on March 17. Up to 500 vaccinated health-care workers will be allowed to watch the first game of the teams' Stanley Cup playoff series. (John Woods/The Canadian Press)

As the pandemic approaches its 15th month, it would be fair to suggest neither optimism nor pessimism should play any role in informing the province's pandemic response. Only pandemic indicators ought to matter.

Whenever the decision-makers ignored data — in particular, rising case counts, test-positivity rates and hospitalizations — the entire province paid the price.

This happened during the second wave in October, when public health saw case counts exceed worst-case scenarios but responded with an ineffectual series of targeted restrictions.

It happened during the third wave in April, when another exponential rise in cases was met with a similar, tepid response.

'We've been peak and valley'

On Tuesday, Pallister brushed that record aside with a win some, lose some analogy.

"I mean, we did better than everybody for a lot of this pandemic and worse than everybody for part of it as well," he said. 

"I mean, we've been peak and valley, right?"

This statement warrants scrutiny. Manitoba only outperformed most other provinces for the first five months of the pandemic, when COVID-19 largely passed over the Prairies.

Manitoba's second wave, which claimed the lives of hundreds of personal-care-home residents, was the deadliest in Canada on a per-capita basis.

So many people in this province have died of COVID-19 since August 2020, Manitoba continues to possess the second-highest pandemic death rate in Canada. Our 77 deaths per 100,000 people is second only to Quebec's 130.

During the third wave of the pandemic, characterized by more contagious variants afflicting younger patients, Manitoba's infection rate peaked at the second-highest level seen in Canada since the start of the pandemic. Only Alberta had a higher infection rate, during the peak of its third wave.

Manitoba alone, however, was forced to transfer COVID-19 patients to intensive care wards in other provinces after our hospitals were overwhelmed.

'We did better than everybody, a lot of this pandemic, and worse than everybody for part of it as well,' Premier Brian Pallister says. (Pool camera)

On Tuesday, Pallister suggested Manitoba could not have done anything different to prevent the third wave.

"It isn't for lack of preparation that this has happened," he said.

"I think when the analysis comes through in the days ahead, we'll identify different realities that are true here in Manitoba that aren't so true in other parts of the country that have caused some of the negative impacts of COVID being able to spread more rapidly in certain demographics."

The premier did not elaborate upon whatever it is about this province that made the third wave so severe.


Bartley Kives

Senior reporter, CBC Manitoba

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.

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