With the lowest per capita test rate in the province and an increasing number of people in need of a hospital bed, COVID-19 has gained a significant foothold in Southern Health.
On Monday, chief provincial public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin said almost 50 per cent of new COVID-19 cases are in the health region that accounts for just 15 per cent of the province's population.
"We know that we have enough unvaccinated Manitobans that if we don’t do something to limit the transmission of the virus, we’re going to see significant strains on our health-care system again," Roussin told reporters during a virtual news conference Monday.
"We’ve seen this steady climb in our numbers over the past number of weeks, and now over this past weekend, we’ve broken that 100-case mark for a few days now, so we’re quite concerned about this."
After a two-day break in reporting COVID-19 figures, the province said 100 new infections were detected Saturday, 113 on Sunday, and 93 on Monday.
Of the 93 infections reported Monday, 67 were in people who were not fully vaccinated, including 41 cases in Southern Health.
Two more deaths due to COVID-19 were also added to the province’s toll Monday: a man in his 40s from Southern Health (reported Sunday) and a man in his 60s from Winnipeg (reported Sunday).
There were 77 Manitobans being treated in hospital for COVID-19, as of Monday morning, including 19 in intensive care. Thirty-two per cent of hospitalizations were patients from Southern Health.
Beyond the high per capita infection rate, Roussin said a number of other concerning trends are developing in the southern region of the province.
Cases are being detected in area schools, demand for testing is the lowest in the province, people are reporting a high number of contacts, and more than half of COVID-19 intensive care unit admissions are being tested for the first time at the hospital, Roussin said.
"There’s people that are delaying being tested, are out in community while very ill, and not being diagnosed until being admitted when they’re severely ill," he said.
The top doctor said his concerns are not isolated to Southern Health; however, recent trends in the area indicate the spread of the novel coronavirus "will continue to increase as this fourth wave progresses."
Dr. Paul Foster, a hospitalist at Bethesda Regional Health Centre in Steinbach, said it’s common for people with severe COVID-19 symptoms to be tested for the first time in the emergency room.
"I can’t speak to exactly why that is, but we have seen quite a few people who go about their lives, continue going to work, continue interacting with friends and family even while symptomatic," Foster said. "And it's not until the symptoms become severe enough to warrant an emergency room visit that they actually get that swab."
For about six weeks the hospital has been responding to higher patient volumes, with a number of unvaccinated people coming in very ill with the delta variant, Foster said.
About 25 per cent of patients over recent months required treatment for COVID-19, a proportion that’s been increasing, but still nowhere near where it was during the fall and winter wave, Foster said.
"In terms of absolute numbers, I think we’re already in that spike, and we’re already in that crunch where it’s been very difficult to get critically ill patients transferred to ICU early on," he said Monday. "They essentially have to be ill enough to be requiring a ventilator, and we intubate them and send them (to Winnipeg or Brandon) on a ventilator.
"There's not enough room to get them there any earlier than that."
However, Foster said COVID-19 vaccination has also made a huge difference in the outcomes of patients who do catch the virus and has reduced the proportion of seriously ill people.
"It’s really been remarkable how well even the most vulnerable vaccinated patients have done."
Meanwhile, Roussin said a regional reintroduction of restrictions to curb the spread of the virus has not been ruled out.
"We’re seeing a significant case burden there and a number of the concerning trends," he said. "There are certainly challenges with the regional only approach because we know there's a lot of mobility.
"This being said, we have public health measures in place provincewide right now, very widespread proof of vaccine requirements in many settings, and so we’ll continue to follow that."
Danielle Da Silva
Danielle Da Silva is a general assignment reporter.