Opinion

With a jump in COVID-19 hospitalizations and Manitoba’s test positivity rate inching towards seven per cent, the province will likely have no choice but to tighten public health orders, long before current ones expire May 12.

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With a jump in COVID-19 hospitalizations and Manitoba’s test positivity rate inching towards seven per cent, the province will likely have no choice but to tighten public health orders, long before current ones expire May 12.

On Thursday, for the third day in a row, test positivity rates province-wide and in Winnipeg were at or above six per cent. That hasn’t happened since January.

The province reported 261 new cases of the novel coronavirus — a level not seen since early January.

The number of patients in intensive care units was 35, only six shy of the 41 in ICUs on Jan. 3.

The daily number of COVID-19 patients in hospital has been hovering around 130-140 for most of April. On Thursday, it jumped to 145 — the highest level since April 1.

Of those, 76 were considered active cases, the highest number since February.

After months of declining case numbers and infection rates, Manitoba is going in the wrong direction.

It is, however, doing far better recently than every other province outside the Atlantic provinces. Manitoba’s case numbers of 143 per 100,000 people over the past 14 days are well below the national average of 314 (Ontario’s was 396, Saskatchewan’s 315, and Alberta’s 447).

It won’t last.

Variants of concern are now widely circulating; the virus is spreading much more efficiently than it did previously. There are not enough immunized people in the general population to stop it.

If steps aren’t taken immediately to stem the tide, ICU numbers will almost certainly return to levels seen in November and December. Maybe worse.

Chief provincial public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin, the public health team, and Premier Brian Pallister, have some tough decisions to make in the next 24-48 hours.

If steps aren’t taken immediately to stem the tide, ICU numbers will almost certainly return to levels seen in November and December. Maybe worse.

Clearly, the status quo cannot stand. Tighter restrictions will have to be implemented to slow the spread in order to protect hospitals and mitigate severe illness, including death.

Those restrictions will likely target indoor settings where there is prolonged contact. There’s a long list of possible targets: indoor sporting activities, household interactions (two-person designated rule), places of worship, restaurants and licensed establishments (where masks are doffed), and indoor classes (such as dance and yoga).

Most retail should be spared; people in stores are masked and only interact for brief periods.

Interprovincial travel should be severely curtailed, although the province has been reluctant in that area.

As usual, it won't be a perfect list. There isn’t one.

There will be arguments and conflicts about "why me and not them." We’ll hear the same arguments about how there must be better solutions than "crude lockdowns."

There aren’t. Not at this point.

Another round of such orders would come at a great cost, economically and socially. However, the cost of not acting would likely be worse.

The only way to get through the next two or three months before enough people are immunized to reach potential herd immunity is to limit close physical contact between human beings. If everybody followed the rules to a T, perhaps the province wouldn’t have to bring in stricter measures, but that hasn’t happened.

The number of contacts among infected people has grown, which means people are socializing outside their households. Contact tracing has revealed some are having indoor parties, others are letting their children have sleepovers.

Public health officials don’t really know where most of the transmission occurs. They have data on outbreaks and information about where infected people say they’ve been (without really knowing where they picked up the virus).

The best officials can do is bring in orders that limit close, prolonged indoor contact. When they do, case numbers and infection rates fall.

Another round of such orders would come at a great cost, economically and socially. However, the cost of not acting would likely be worse.

What the province can’t afford to do is wait until the situation deteriorates further. By then, it may be too late.

tom.brodbeck@freepress.mb.ca

Tom Brodbeck

Tom Brodbeck
Columnist

Tom has been covering Manitoba politics since the early 1990s and joined the Winnipeg Free Press news team in 2019.

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