The province’s biggest drop in COVID-19 cases in seven weeks prompted Manitoba's health minister to deliver a bright message on the shortest day of the year.
On Monday, Health Minister Cameron Friesen addressed the media for the first time in weeks, appearing by telephone alongside Dr. Jazz Atwal, acting deputy chief provincial public health officer, and Lanette Siragusa, chief nursing officer.
"Today is the darkest day," Friesen said, referring to Dec. 21’s winter solstice, "a turning point, where the days begin to get longer, and that creates a kind of hope for Manitobans."
"I apply that to where we are in the pandemic," he said as Manitoba's daily COVID-19 case count was 167, the lowest it has been since late October. The five-day test positivity rates dropped to 10.5 per cent in Winnipeg and 11.5 per cent provincewide — markedly lower than 13 per cent, where they've hovered around for weeks. COVID-19 still managed to claim the lives of four Manitobans, raising the death toll to 572.
"No one's suggesting there won't be a long road ahead of us. We're not out of the woods yet," Friesen acknowledged when asked if it was too soon to say Manitoba has reached a pandemic turning point.
"The arrival of vaccine in (Manitoba) represents a perceptible change in how we're viewing our place in the pandemic, (but) no one is raising a 'mission accomplished' sign," he said. He noted that the impact of code-red restrictions and quicker testing and contact tracing times in Manitoba are cause for hope. In recent days, Canada has had a 12.7 per cent increase in COVID-19 cases. In Ontario, the number of cases is up 17 per cent and there's been a 32 per cent increase in Quebec's case counts, said Friesen.
"We're down 23 per cent. Why? Because Manitobans are doing the right thing at the right time."
Of the new cases announced Monday, 83 were in the Winnipeg region, 43 were in Southern health, 25 were in the Northern region, nine were in Interlake-Eastern and seven were in Prairie Mountain.
Of the four Manitobans who died with COVID-19, three are women in their 90s from Winnipeg and one is a woman in her 60s from the Southern health region. Two of the deaths are linked to outbreaks at Winnipeg personal care homes: Charleswood care centre and Park Manor care centre.
Siragusa said of the 382 COVID-19 hospitalizations Monday, 310 patients had active COVID-19; 72 required hospital care but are no longer considered infectious. Intensive care units are operating at 168 per cent of normal, pre-COVID-19 capacity.
There were 121 patients in the ICU, including 49 with COVID-19 who were past the infectious stage but were still very sick and required critical intervention, and 39 of the 76 ventilated patients have the coronavirus — including six COVID-19 patients considered no longer infectious.
Siragusa announced new visitor restrictions at hospitals to allow an essential caregiver to visit patients in acute care when a virtual connection is not possible.
"Patients in acute care will be able to identify one essential care partner to provide in-person physical, psychological and emotional support as necessary in a hospital setting," Siragusa said. Those who are critically injured, need a translator or require help understanding complex discharge instructions are some examples, she said.
"The intention of this change is not to encourage more social visiting," Siragusa said. "We have, right now, 18 outbreaks in our hospitals across Manitoba. We do want to keep visiting at a minimum to minimize the spread of COVID, but it is very important that we ensure there is access to individuals who are active participants in the care of patients." How often and how long caregivers can be with patients will be decided on a case-by-case basis with the hospital's team leaders, Siragusa said.
When asked if Manitobans should be worried about reports from the United Kingdom about a new, more communicable COVID-19 strain, Atwal was dismissive.
"The new strain isn't actually a new strain," he said.
"It has been floating around the U.K. since September" but now more attention is being paid to it, he said.
That strain of COVID-19 hasn't been identified in Canada as of yet, Atwal said.
While it is more communicable, "it doesn't appear to be any riskier than the virus that has been floating around. It doesn't appear to cause any more severe disease," he said. It shouldn't affect the efficacy of COVID-19 tests or the vaccine, he said, "with the information we have right now."
— with files from Katie May
After 20 years of reporting on the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home, Carol moved to the legislature bureau in early 2020.