Manitoba

Manitobans brace for new pandemic restrictions as COVID case counts rise across multiple regions

Under pressure to curb the rise of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in Manitoba, health officials are expected to unveil a new public health order on Friday afternoon.

'I think we're at the point yet again where the horse is out of the barn,' doctor opines

A health-care workers stands in the hallway of a COVID-19 unit at Health Sciences Centre in Winnipeg. The number of people hospitalized due to COVID-19 has jumped from 87 to 143 over the past three weeks. (Mikaela MacKenzie/The Canadian Press)

Under pressure to curb the rise of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in Manitoba, health officials are expected to unveil a new public health order on Friday afternoon.

Chief Provincial Public Health Officer Dr. Brent Roussin said new restrictions are coming to arrest what he described as a disappointing trend: the near-doubling of COVID-19 cases in the space of three weeks.

On Oct. 21, Manitoba was averaging 83 COVID-19 cases per day. On Wednesday, the seven-day average daily case count had risen to 158 cases.

The number of people hospitalized due to COVID-19 also jumped from 87 to 143 during the same three-week span — a rise of 64 per cent — while the provincewide test positivity rate nearly doubled from 3.2 per cent to 6.2 per cent.

On Wednesday, a spokesperson for Health Minister Audrey Gordon said public health measures would be updated later this week, leaving the impression Roussin will unveil new restrictions Friday.

Medical experts, epidemiologists and municipal leaders are all waiting with apprehension, as it's unclear which measures the new premier, Heather Stefanson, and her cabinet are willing to approve 20 months into the pandemic.

COVID-19 cases are now on the rise in four of five of Manitoba's health regions, and are only receding in the northern reaches of the province.

"Unfortunately, cases seem to be rising everywhere," said Souradet Shaw, a Winnipeg epidemiologist, in an interview on Thursday.

What's next?

The notion of containing the fourth wave of COVID-19 in Manitoba by applying new restrictions solely on the Southern Health region — home to the province's highest infection rate and lowest vaccination rate — no longer appears to be a silver bullet.

Shaw said the "next logical step" for Manitoba would be additional means of preventing unvaccinated people from coming into contact with vaccinated people.

Unvaccinated people infected with the virus that causes COVID-19 are far more infectious than vaccinated people who contract the disease, numerous studies have concluded.

The problem is the province already prevents unvaccinated people from entering restaurants, bars, movie theatres and professional sports venues.

Dr. Jillian Horton, an internist at the Health Science Centre in Winnipeg, said Thursday the province could focus more on preventing the spread of COVID-19 in schools.

From Oct. 9 to Nov. 9, people 19 or under contracted 35 per cent of Manitoba's COVID-19 cases, Shared Health said in a statement.

Horton said better ventilation in schools, smaller cohorts and rapid testing for students could all mitigate the spread of COVID-19 among young people. But it's tough to envision how new restrictions will help, she said.

"I think we're at the point yet again where the horse is out of the barn," said Horton, comparing this phase of the fourth wave with the points of no return during previous waves of the pandemic. 

"It's tough to know what to hope for."

Over the past month, people under 20 have contracted 35 per cent of Manitoba's COVID-19 cases. (Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images)

Doctors in Manitoba, however, have yet to call for the widespread application of pandemic restrictions — something they did before the second wave took off in October 2020 and the third wave spiralled out of control in May of this year.

As of Wednesday, 28 COVID-19 patients required intensive care in Manitoba hospitals. At the worst point of the third wave, on June 1, there were 72 COVID-19 patients in ICUs in Manitoba and another 37 getting intensive care in other provinces.

Half of Manitoba's current COVID-19 patients in ICU are from Southern Health, which is also home to 40 per cent of the COVID-19 hospital patients in this province and 31 per cent of the active COVID-19 cases.

The Southern Health region has 15 per cent of Manitoba's population.

Martin Harder, the mayor of Winkler, said he and other southern Manitoba municipal leaders would appreciate advance warning if the region is intended as the subject of targeted new measures.

"Right now, I would appreciate it if Dr. Roussin at least would give municipalities affected a heads up," Harder said Thursday via email.

Harder said he would prefer "that the changes would be disruptive to those individuals who have ignored the standards and precautions set out, not the struggling businesses and communities that are caught in the tornado and the innocent."

The NDP is chiding Premier Heather Stefanson for failing to take action on rising case counts. (John Woods/The Canadian Press)

Neither Stefanson nor Gordon have spoken to reporters this week about the pandemic.

The Official Opposition chided the premier in particular for failing to address the rising case counts.

"Manitoba has been on this road before. We shouldn't squander all of the sacrifices so many Manitobans have made by getting vaccinated and following public health rules," NDP leader Wab Kinew said Wednesday in a statement.

"It's disappointing the new PC Premier stuck to [former premier Brian] Pallister's approach of not showing up during difficult times, because Manitobans need a leader who takes action and makes decisions, not one that hides out during our fourth wave."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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.

With files from Alana Cole

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