Manitoba’s COVID-19 case counts and hospitalizations have been rising steadily over the past several weeks.
On Friday, the province revealed the test positivity rate for the Southern Health region hit a staggering 14.5 per cent, about three times the provincial average. Monday’s COVID-19 bulletin showed case numbers grew at an alarming rate over the weekend. On Tuesday, the new case number hit 185, including 66 in Winnipeg, the highest caseloads the province has logged since June.
Meanwhile, Manitoba’s five-day test positivity rate has climbed to six per cent (almost double what it was a month ago) and the number of COVID-19 patients in hospital has grown by almost two-thirds since mid-October.
Despite that, the public hasn’t seen hide nor hair of any senior public health official in almost a week, including Health Minister Audrey Gordon, who refused an interview request Friday to respond to the Southern Health numbers. No new public health restrictions have been announced and no steps have been taken to curb what are clearly dangerously high levels of transmission.
Government appears to be missing in action. Is this the kind of leadership Manitobans can expect from newly-minted Premier Heather Stefanson?
It’s obvious the province waited too long to take action in Southern Health, where a disproportionate number of infections have been driving up hospitalizations, including ICU admissions. Half of COVID-19 deaths over the past six weeks have been from Southern Health, home to roughly 15 per cent of Manitoba's population. More than half of COVID-19 patients in ICUs (15 of 28) are from that region, which continues to have the lowest vaccine coverage in Manitoba.
By failing to act earlier to curb transmissions, the rest of the province is suffering.
Infectious disease experts warned early in the immunization rollout pockets of low vaccine uptake could affect surrounding areas with higher coverage. We’re now seeing that.
Regions such as Winnipeg with high vaccine uptake (including 92 per cent of people in their 20s who are fully vaccinated) are negatively affected by areas such as the Rural Municipality of Stanley and city of Winkler, where the majority of people have refused to get vaccinated.
This was predicted. Vaccines only work well when there’s broad coverage. High overall uptake is encouraging but when there are regions with extremely low uptake, it affects everyone. It bleeds from one community to the next. Eventually, the number of breakthrough cases increases, including those who end up in hospital.
This is a public health matter; it has nothing to do with blaming or shaming. When an infectious disease in one part of the province grows out of control, it’s the provincial government’s responsibility to act to contain the disease.
The Manitoba government has failed to do so — and no one from government seems to be around to answer questions about it.
The province should have brought in strict public health orders in Southern Health before the test positivity rate hit double digits last month.
Some have argued against a targeted approach, claiming regional measures would encourage people to travel to nearby areas with fewer rules. However, with proof-of-vaccination orders in place, that risk has been significantly reduced. There’s little point travelling to less restricted areas to frequent a bar, restaurant or catch a movie if you're unvaccinated; you'll be turned away at the door (just as you would be if you refused to wear a mask in an indoor public place).
The longer this goes on, the fewer options the province will have to use targeted restrictions. Public health officials will soon be faced with the dilemma (if they haven't already) of whether to apply measures regionally or bring in provincewide orders.
It could have been avoided had the province acted sooner in Southern Health. Every day government drags its feet, Manitoba moves one step closer to another round of provincewide restrictions.
Tom has been covering Manitoba politics since the early 1990s and joined the Winnipeg Free Press news team in 2019.