Manitoba keeps the size of COVID outbreaks at personal care homes under wraps
Premier defends keeping data quiet on day COVID outbreak cancelled announcement at personal care home
On a day when Heather Stefanson sought to turn the page on the deadliest COVID-19 outbreak at a Manitoba personal care home, a new COVID-19 outbreak at a different personal care home forced the premier to scramble.
On Wednesday, Stefanson planned to announce $15 million in new provincial funding for personal care homes at River Park Gardens, a seniors' facility in Winnipeg's Royalwood neighbourhood.
The event was moved to the Manitoba legislative building because of a COVID-19 outbreak at the home.
The province informed the media of the venue change one hour before the scheduled announcement.
The severity of this outbreak is unknown, because the province no longer discloses how many people are infected at care homes.
Under Manitoba's two-week-old strategy of publishing statistics such as hospitalizations and case counts on a weekly basis — rather than every weekday — the province has stopped revealing how many personal care home residents are infected with the virus.
Weekly data doesn't include infection numbers
CBC News made repeated requests for this data over three days, but the province declined to disclose it.
The province instead pointed to the weekly release of COVID-19 epidemiological reports that list the total number of COVID outbreaks, but not the number of people infected in those outbreaks.
That means two outbreaks could denote four sick elderly people. They could also denote 400. There is no way of knowing if the personal care homes do not publish the data themselves.
Some, like the Saul & Claribel Simkin Centre in Winnipeg's Linden Ridge neighbourhood, disclose this information proactively. It informed families of 16 infections on April 3.
"I think that it wouldn't be a coincidence that we're seeing a rise in our cases with the ending of the restrictions that were previously in place," Simkin care director Alanna Kull said in an interview, referring to the end of the mandatory indoor mask mandate and mandatory quarantine for COVID patients on March 15.
"I can't say that 100 per cent, but obviously we're making that correlation here, that we're seeing staff coming in sick, we're seeing visitors coming in sick and we're seeing residents that are now getting sick."
The infected staff and visitors were not symptomatic when they entered the care home and disclosed their illnesses as soon as possible, Kull said. The severity of the symptoms among residents is also less severe than it was during a January outbreak, she added.
But she said it would be preferable if the province reinstated basic pandemic measures such as the mask mandate.
In the absence of provincial data disclosure, it is not clear how many personal care home residents are infected in Manitoba.
As of Friday, the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority listed 267 infections among outbreaks at eight personal care homes, but those figures are cumulative and not current, said spokesperson Bobbi-Jo Stanley.
Even the provincial list of the total number of outbreaks is not current. That list is published every Thursday for the week ending the previous Saturday.
It is unclear if the River Park Gardens outbreak would be counted in that list, as it was reported only after the government planned to hold a news conference at the care home.
NDP Leader Wab Kinew accused the government of trying to pretend that COVID-19 is over.
"The reality of the pandemic keeps interjecting and reminding us that it is very much here. And I can think of no clearer example for the PCs that they had to move their press conference on account of an outbreak in a personal care home as proof that the pandemic is not over," he said.
Families in the know
Premier Heather Stefanson called the new outbreak an "unfortunate situation," but said the people who should know about personal care home outbreaks — the families of residents — are being informed.
"The information is getting out to those that need it when they need it," she said.
Stefanson has defended the weekly data releases as possessing the "relevant information" Manitobans need to determine their COVID-19 risk.
She said Manitobans can glean more from a once-a-week snapshot of COVID data, complete with trends, than from the long-standing practice of releasing case counts, hospitalizations and outbreak reports on a daily basis.
Manitoba Public Health said in a statement individual personal care homes manage their own situation with respect to COVID-19 outbreaks, and respond quickly to outbreaks.
"Their priority is an immediate internal response for their residents in addition to notifying families, updating any internal protocols as needed, and ensuring those who need to know have the information they need," the statement reads.