As Manitoba recorded its first death involving a COVID-19 variant, a quarter of screened cases in Winnipeg are now coming back positive for highly contagious strains of the virus.

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As Manitoba recorded its first death involving a COVID-19 variant, a quarter of screened cases in Winnipeg are now coming back positive for highly contagious strains of the virus.

Chief provincial public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin has warned a variant could soon become the dominant strain of the coronavirus in Manitoba. He said Thursday it's concerning that 25 per cent of positive test results have been flagged as variants in the city. Most of them are the B.1.1.7 variant first detected in the U.K., which claimed the life of a Winnipeg man in March.

The man in his 70s was diagnosed posthumously with the B.1.1.7 variant. The provincial government released the information as part of its COVID-19 data Wednesday.

On Thursday, Roussin confirmed the news during a teleconference with reporters. No specifics about the man's death were released.

The Cadham provincial laboratory now screens all positive COVID-19 test results to check for highly contagious variants, except if there's not enough genetic material left on the swab to do the screening. It's a reliable indicator to show how the more infectious variants are taking hold in Manitoba.

"There's no real magical number, but at some point, if that proportion of cases gets to something around 50 per cent, even screening is not all that important, we just know what is our predominant strain. Right now, we're going to continue screening, but right now, I think this is concerning to us," Roussin said.

To monitor the effects variants are having on Manitoba's health-care system, public health officials are focusing on tracking only those who become severely ill. They'll be monitoring length of hospital stays, intensive care visits, and age of patients who've been hospitalized with variant cases.

As of Thursday, roughly six per cent of Manitobans who became infected with more contagious strains had to be hospitalized, with about three per cent needing intensive care. Out of the total 339 cases involving variants of concern in the province, 20 have been hospitalized.

A provincial spokesperson said Thursday there are currently eight people hospitalized with a variant of concern: seven from the Winnipeg health region and one from the Interlake-Eastern health region. Seven cases are related to B 1.1.7 and one is uncategorized. Of these cases, four are in the ICU.

On Thursday, Roussin announced only minor changes to Manitoba's public-health orders that take effect at 12:01 a.m. Friday. The changes allow liquor sales on golf courses and expand self-help group gathering sizes from 15 to 25. Roussin said the province didn't originally think golf courses would be open in the first week of April, so he said the new orders correct that oversight without putting public health at risk.

But he took any further loosening of restrictions off the table until at least the end of the month.

Public health orders now expire April 30, and Roussin said it will take until then to see the full impact of any social gatherings over the Easter long weekend. The orders could be tightened before the end of the month, but they won't be loosened, he added.

Meanwhile, a 139 new cases of COVID-19 and three more deaths were announced Thursday. A man in his 70s; a woman in her 70s linked to an outbreak at Holy Family Home; and a woman in her 80s — all from Winnipeg — died.

There were 141 Manitobans in hospital because of COVID-19, including 33 in intensive care. Of the ICU patients, 20 were deemed no longer infectious and 13 have active cases of the virus.

Thursday's COVID-19 count includes 60 cases in Winnipeg, 55 in Northern Health, 18 in Prairie Mountain, and six in the Southern Health region.

Twitter: @thatkatiemay

Katie May

Katie May

Katie May reports on courts, crime and justice for the Free Press.

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