The Manitoba government has two main goals in the fight against COVID-19: to mitigate deaths and protect hospital capacity.
On both fronts, the province is not doing well.
Chief provincial public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin announced nine more fatalities Monday, bringing the total number of deaths in Manitoba to 499 since the beginning of the pandemic. That’s more than double what it was just two weeks ago at 196.
While the majority of deaths are still among those over 65 (whose lives are just as valuable as anybody else’s), there's a growing number in their 40s and 50s. About 10 per cent of COVID-19 deaths in Manitoba are younger than 65.
Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister says all provinces have been hit hard by the second wave of the pandemic. That’s true. But when it comes to the number of COVID-19 deaths per capita — probably the most important measurement of all — only Quebec has done worse.
As of Dec. 13, Manitoba had 36 deaths per 100,000 people, second to Quebec’s 88. Ontario had 27. Alberta, considered Canada’s COVID-19 hotspot in recent weeks, had only 16. British Columbia had 12.
Saskatchewan, a province with similar demographics to Manitoba, had only eight COVID-19 deaths per 100,000. Manitoba’s ratio is nearly five times that.
It’s not clear why Manitoba’s pandemic death rate is so high. The province did a poor job of preparing for the second wave of the pandemic, including failing to adequately protect personal care homes. But only about half of COVID-19 deaths have been linked to outbreaks in nursing homes.
Manitoba has had more cases of COVID-19 than most provinces (1,506 per 100,000 people since the beginning of the pandemic), ranking third behind Quebec and Alberta. And it continues to have the second highest cases per capita over the past seven days. But that doesn't explain the much higher death rate.
Case numbers on their own are less important than outcomes. Since most people become only mildly ill from COVID-19 (or show no symptoms at all) it’s severe outcomes — including deaths and hospitalizations — that matter most. In both cases, Manitoba fares poorly.
The number of new cases has fallen somewhat over the past few weeks (due largely to lower testing volumes), but hospitalization numbers continue to rise. Health officials have warned for weeks that current levels cannot continue. Yet no one seems to know where the breaking point is.
The total number of patients in hospital that tested positive for COVID-19 peaked Friday at 388. The province had incomplete data on intensive care unit beds Monday. However, ICUs are running at over 150 per cent capacity compared to per-pandemic levels. (It's hard to imagine how hospitals would handle a spike in critical care cases right now not related to the pandemic, like a large-scale trauma incident.)
Critical care staff are already spread thin. ICUs are currently relying on teams of health-care workers that include some with little to no critical care experience.
There are 27 ICU beds that are open and ready for use, according to Shared Health. But hospitals would have to find personnel to staff them. It’s unclear where those would come from.
While nobody has been denied critical care yet, many Manitobans have had their care delayed because of the pandemic.
In November alone, an estimated 2,700 elective and non-emergent surgeries were postponed to free up staff for redeployment. Those patients, many in pain and discomfort, were put back on the waiting list. (The province is still behind on surgical backlogs from the spring when elective procedures were postponed.)
Since most surgeons have stopped booking elective procedures, there will likely be thousands more in need of surgery over the winter who will be delayed further.
Manitoba is losing the COVID-19 battle. By most measurements, it has not managed this pandemic well. Sadly, it appears the worst is yet to come.
Tom has been covering Manitoba politics since the early 1990s and joined the Winnipeg Free Press news team in 2019.