Manitobans may finally be getting a payoff after weeks of strict COVID-19 restrictions. But Health Minister Cameron Friesen’s mini victory lap Monday was premature.
The province announced 167 new cases of COVID-19 Monday, the lowest daily number since late October. For the first time since Nov. 15, Manitoba’s test positivity rate fell below 13 per cent over the weekend (dropping to 11.5 per cent Monday). It’s still high and remains above the national average. The World Health Organization says the rate should be below five per cent before governments loosen their restrictions. Nevertheless, it's a positive development after weeks at stubbornly high levels.
The lower case numbers should be viewed with caution: the drop corresponds with a decline in testing volumes. Manitoba was conducting about 4,000 tests a day on average several weeks ago. The daily average is now about 2,200. It’s unclear how much of that has contributed to lower case numbers. But it's no surprise numbers would fall with less testing.
Still, the modest improvement offers some hope; although not as much as Friesen tried to convey. The health minister compared the lower numbers (and the prospect of a COVID-19 vaccine) to Monday’s winter solstice. As with the first day of winter, where the days get longer, Manitoba is at a "turning point" in the pandemic, he said.
"There’s a sense of hope and optimism in the province," said Friesen. "The change is there."
Friesen opened Monday's media briefing with a long-winded political speech about how well the Pallister government has prepared for the second wave of the pandemic. He said government has expanded testing sites and made plans to roll out a provincewide COVID-19 immunization program. The minister (who hasn't addressed the media in weeks and did so Monday only after case numbers declined) claimed no other province prepared as well as Manitoba on stockpiling personal protective equipment.
Until there's a decline in the number of COVID–19 patients in hospital, there is no 'turning point' in the pandemic.
"No one is raising the 'mission accomplished' sign," he said. But it's clear Manitoba is doing better than most provinces at controlling the spread of the virus, the minister claimed.
That may be a tough sell to families who have lost loved ones to COVID-19 in recent weeks. Manitoba continues to have among the highest COVID-19 deaths per capita in the country. The province announced 22 more deaths over the weekend and four more Monday.
Manitoba’s case numbers may be falling, but it still has the fourth-highest number of new cases per capita in the country over the past seven days (134 per 100,000). It’s hardly leading the country in reducing the spread of SARS-CoV-2.
Besides, until there's a decline in the number of COVID-19 patients in hospital, there is no "turning point" in the pandemic, as Friesen suggested. Hospitalizations, including the number of patients in intensive care, have remained stubbornly high over the past several weeks. They tend to lag behind declining case numbers. But it’s far too early to claim victory of any kind until those numbers come down.
There were still 382 COVID-19 patients in hospital Monday, including 49 in intensive care. Manitoba’s ICUs are operating at 168 per cent capacity compared to normal levels. Those are not sustainable numbers. The province’s health-care system can't continue at that level. As it is, thousands of elective and non-emergent surgeries were cancelled to free up staff and space to handle the influx of COVID-19 patients. Many staff are facing burnout.
"No one’s suggesting that there won’t be a long road ahead of us," said Friesen. "We’re not out of the woods yet."
Not only are we not out of the woods, Manitoba probably hasn't seen the worst of it. With widespread immunization still months away and a full winter of virus transmission ahead, we are nowhere near out of the woods.
The days may be getting longer, but the fight against COVID-19 will likely get darker before it gets any brighter.
Tom has been covering Manitoba politics since the early 1990s and joined the Winnipeg Free Press news team in 2019.