More restrictions are on the horizon in Manitoba, where the health-care system could be overwhelmed within weeks if the provincial COVID-19 infection rate stays on its current trajectory.

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More restrictions are on the horizon in Manitoba, where the health-care system could be overwhelmed within weeks if the provincial COVID-19 infection rate stays on its current trajectory.

Chief provincial public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin said Wednesday provincial modelling shows that if the current transmission trend continues unabated, we'll see case counts and hospitalization rates that will put "added strain on our health-care system" over the next two to three weeks.

Roussin hinted at stricter public-health orders, but declined to be specific about what the new rules would entail or when they might come into effect. He said public-health officials are reviewing options.

"I can certainly assure you that stronger restrictions are an option. I'm not going to speculate on what those might be precisely at this point," he said.

ICU admission rates for COVID-19 patients in Manitoba haven't changed since vaccines became available, but now unvaccinated people are far more likely to need intensive care. Approximately two per cent of Manitobans who test positive for COVID-19 are admitted to the ICU, and that's held true despite the fact the majority of Manitobans have been vaccinated, Roussin said.

It means a smaller pool of primarily unvaccinated patients need life-saving care, and it has strained the health-care system.

"We still see roughly that same number, despite the high vaccine coverage… those admissions are almost exclusively in not-fully vaccinated individuals. So we're still seeing about the same proportion of test positives be admitted to ICU, and now what's making that more challenging is many of those people are only testing for the first time upon admission to the ICU," Roussin said.

Roussin said it's "disappointing and frustrating" to him, and to all Manitobans, to hear additional restrictions are likely on the way.

"I can certainly assure you that stronger restrictions are an option. I'm not going to speculate on what those might be precisely at this point." – Dr. Brent Roussin

Neither the premier nor her cabinet ministers have made themselves available to the public to address the re-emerging crisis in schools and hospitals.

It's been more than two weeks since Health Minister Audrey Gordon held a media availability. It's been eight days since Heather Stefanson was sworn in as premier and answered any media questions. Education Minister Cliff Cullen has been silent as COVID-19 outbreaks in schools hit a new high.

None of the three leaders was available to answer questions from reporters on behalf of the public this week.

As ministers were leaving a cabinet meeting Wednesday morning, Gordon stopped for less than 90 seconds to answer questions from the Free Press. The premier slipped away. All Gordon would say is that they hope to address the issue of rising COVID-19 cases "before the end of the week."

"We certainly will be coming out to have that discussion with Manitobans (with) more details to follow."

When asked if the cabinet had discussed what to do about the surge in cases in southern Manitoba, where vaccination rates are the lowest and case counts have been highest, Gordon said, "We talked about the entire province."

"We talked about the cases, the test positivity rates, the higher numbers, the changes that we've seen over time," she said. Before announcing any measures to address it, she said she wanted to talk with cabinet and the PC caucus Wednesday.

"They are on the grassroots, the ground level, talking to residents," Gordon said. "We want to hear that feedback and be very sensitive and thoughtful about that. We've had a fulsome discussion today. It's been very enlightening in terms of everyone's view."

"We certainly will be coming out to have that discussion with Manitobans (with) more details to follow." – Health Minister Audrey Gordon

NDP Leader Wab Kinew called for the government to take immediate action.

"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.

"It's disappointing the new PC premier stuck to Mr. Pallister's approach of not showing up during difficult times, because Manitobans need a leader who takes action and makes decisions, not one (who) hides out during our fourth wave... The government needs to bring in new public health measures today to stem the rise of Manitoba's fourth wave," Kinew said in a statement.

On Wednesday, the province announced two deaths and 143 new COVID-19 cases, including 66 in the Southern Health region, 33 in Winnipeg, 29 in Prairie Mountain, 10 in Interlake-Eastern and five in the Northern Health region.

There were 111 patients in hospital with active infections, 21 of whom were in intensive care.

— with files from Carol Sanders and Danielle DaSilva

katie.may@freepress.mb.ca

Katie May

Katie May
Reporter

Katie May is a general-assignment reporter for the Free Press.