If the test positivity rate for COVID-19 rose to double digits in Winnipeg, public health officials would have no choice but to implement strict measures to curb the spread of the virus. Yet the province refuses to act in the Southern Health region, where the test positivity rate has skyrocketed to nearly 15 per cent.
After months of refusing to release data on infection rates by region, the province published test positivity rates by health district on its website Friday.
Not surprisingly, the rate is highest in Southern Health where vaccination uptake is the lowest in the province. The five-day test positivity rate has climbed to 14.5 per cent in Southern Health, up from 9.7 per cent two weeks ago. It's by far the highest in the province. In the Northern health district, the rate has dropped slightly to 9.5 per cent from 11.2 per cent. It's two per cent in Winnipeg and about five per cent in the Prairie Mountain and Interlake-Eastern regions.
The last time Winnipeg had a double-digit test positivity, the province imposed strict public health measures that included restrictions on household visits and bans on in-person service in bars and restaurants. So far, it’s been crickets from the province when asked why officials refuse to apply the same public health standards in Southern Health (and to some extent in the northern region).
It’s not just the test positivity rate or the high number of cases in Southern Health that are cause for concern. More than half of COVID-19 patients in intensive care units (14 out of 24) are from Southern Health and 50 of the 118 hospitalizations come from that region, which makes up about 15 per cent of the Manitoba population.
By contrast, only four ICU patients are from Winnipeg.
The connection between high infection rates and low vaccination uptake in Southern Health is indisputable. Only 65 per cent of people over the age of 12 in that district have received both doses of the COVID-19 vaccine. In Winnipeg, it’s 87 per cent. It’s between 79 and 80 per cent in the three other health regions.
Low vaccination uptake is also linked to higher hospitalization rates. Provincewide, almost three-quarters of active COVID-19 patients in hospital are not fully vaccinated; 95 per cent of active cases in ICU have not been immunized.
Meanwhile, it’s not the elderly in Southern Health who are refusing to get vaccinated; it’s people in their 20s and 30s who are the most hesitant.
Provincial data show 91 per cent of people over the age of 80, and 89 per cent of those in their 70s, in Southern Health are fully immunized. That’s followed by 82 per cent of those in their 60s. It drops off sharply for younger age groups.
Only 70 per cent of people in their 40s and 50s in Southern Health have both doses; 63 per cent of those in their 30s are fully vaccinated.
Only 54 per cent of those aged 20 to 29 in Southern Health have had both shots, a demographic that is likely more socially active (and who probably work in more public-facing jobs) than older age groups. They are at higher risk of infection and of transmitting the virus. (The province reports 43 per cent of those aged 10 to 19 in Southern Health are fully immunized, but children under 12 are still not eligible for the vaccine.)
By comparison, 92 per cent of people in their 20s in Winnipeg are fully vaccinated.
Despite that, the province continues to refuse to bring in stricter public health measures in Southern Health beyond some small changes announced last month.
This isn’t about pitting one region against another. It’s about implementing necessary public health measures to control a dangerous infectious disease. Left unchecked, the virus will spread further and put increasing pressure on hospital capacity, including in Winnipeg. Hospitals can't handle another influx of patients like Manitoba had during the third wave. Action is needed now. The whole point of the province's pandemic response system, announced last year, is to target outbreaks in regions to prevent them from spreading to other parts of the province.
The longer the province waits, the worse it's going to get.
Tom has been covering Manitoba politics since the early 1990s and joined the Winnipeg Free Press news team in 2019.