The number of Manitobans hospitalized with COVID-19 has remained remarkably low over the past two months. It continues to fall, even after the province eased pandemic restrictions two weeks ago, for the third time this year.
Mitigating severe illness from COVID-19, including death, and protecting hospital capacity are the two main objectives of Manitoba’s pandemic response efforts. As long as those remain under control, it can gradually lift restrictions to reduce further harm to people’s livelihoods and mental health.
The tricky part for public health officials is figuring out how daily case numbers and infection rates impact severe outcomes and hospitalizations, now that vaccinations are starting to ramp up.
Higher case numbers and a rise in the test positivity rate (like we’re seeing now) will not impact hospitalizations and deaths the same way they did prior to the vaccine rollout. The greater the proportion of those over age 70 vaccinated, the less severe the impact.
Dr. Brent Roussin, chief provincial public health officer, says Manitobans should expect case numbers and the test positivity rate to rise as restrictions are loosened.
Happily, that didn’t occur after restrictions were eased in January and February.
In the three weeks after measures were loosened Jan. 23, the province’s test positivity fell by half, from 9.8 per cent to 4.8 per cent. It fell further (to three per cent) in the three weeks after restrictions were eased Feb 12 (even after the first U.K. variant was reported in Manitoba Feb. 9).
It wasn’t until after measures were loosened March 5 case numbers and infection rates began to climb again, but only marginally. Manitoba’s test positivity rate jumped to 5.2 per cent earlier this week, and settled to 4.7 per cent Friday.
Hospitalization rates have not followed suit; they’ve been on a steady decline since early January.
There were 272 patients in hospital with COVID-19 on Jan. 23. That fell to 240 by the time measures were eased again Feb. 12. The number of COVID-19 patients in intensive care units dropped to 29, from 40, during that period.
Hospitalizations fell again the following three weeks to 171, including 24 in ICU.
Vaccinations are likely playing a role. The vast majority of people over age 90 have been immunized and just over one-third of those over 80 have received at least one dose. Some of Manitoba’s most vulnerable, who may have otherwise fallen ill, are now protected.
There are signs, however, hospitalization rates could be levelling off.
The province breaks down hospitalizations between those who are still infectious with COVID-19 and those who are still in hospital, but no longer contagious. While the number of non-contagious patients continues to fall, those considered infectious (newly admitted) has plateaued and even increased slightly over the past week.
That may be just a blip, but it’s surely something Manitoba’s pandemic war room is monitoring closely.
The number of COVID-19 patients in ICU has also been largely unchanged for the past two weeks, ranging from 21 to 24.
The only surefire way to ensure hospitalizations continue to fall (they tend to lag a week or two behind infection rates) is to ramp up immunizations. That started to happen this week, with 4,794 doses administered Wednesday, and 5,075 Thursday — about double the daily number doled out over the previous week.
Manitoba also got confirmation Friday of Moderna vaccine shipments for the weeks of April 5 and 19, as well as weekly deliveries of Pfizer-BioNTech until the week of May 24. Manitoba has guaranteed shipments to do at least 8,000 jabs a day.
The faster it can do that, the fewer people will end up in hospital, and the quicker Manitoba can reopen its economy.
Tom has been covering Manitoba politics since the early 1990s and joined the Winnipeg Free Press news team in 2019.