We can’t let up now A glimmer of hope, but it's too early to relax social-distancing measures

If you're looking for a sliver of hope around the COVID-19 pandemic in Manitoba, take some small comfort in knowing the infection rate among those tested for the virus has been falling in recent days.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 09/04/2020 (1024 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

If you’re looking for a sliver of hope around the COVID-19 pandemic in Manitoba, take some small comfort in knowing the infection rate among those tested for the virus has been falling in recent days.

It’s not much to celebrate, but it is tangible evidence that the measures government and the public are taking to reduce the spread of the virus that causes COVID-19 is working.

When Manitoba recorded its first positive COVID-19 case about a month ago, the percentage of those tested who had the disease (which the province calls the “test positive proportion”) was well below one per cent. But as more travellers returned home from abroad, including those showing symptoms, that proportion increased. By early April it climbed to well over one per cent, peaking at 1.56 per cent on April 5. Since then, that number has declined slightly. It fell to 1.47 per cent on Thursday.

At its peak, between two per cent and three per cent of people were testing positive on some days. But of the 2,261 people tested over the past five days (as of Thursday), less than one per cent were positive.

It makes sense. The number of travellers being tested has declined. Travellers showing symptoms are the highest-risk carriers, which is why the province has been testing them first. But as testing has been expanded to others, including symptomatic front-line health-care staff and first responders, the percentage of infected persons has declined.

That means collectively, through rigorous and painful physical-distancing measures (as well as exhaustive contact tracing of those infected), Manitobans are doing an effective job of slowing the spread of the virus. That’s confirmed by the relatively small number of people requiring hospitalization. If the virus were spreading rapidly through community transmission, our hospitals would be overwhelmed with very sick COVID-19 patients. They aren’t. There have been about 12 such patients in hospital, around half in intensive care and some on ventilators, on any given day over the past week. That number has held steady.

With three deaths as of Thursday, Manitoba’s case fatality rate (deaths as a percentage of positive tests) is 1.3 per cent, which is lower than in many other jurisdictions. It’s a small sample size. But it’s an encouraging sign.

There are risks associated with Manitoba’s early success in containing the virus. Dr. Brent Roussin, the province’s chief public health officer, says in no way do these numbers mean the risk of spreading the virus has declined. While Roussin said he’s encouraged by the test results, he’s concerned the public may interpret them to mean they can relax their physical-distancing measures.

They can’t. If they do, all the work Manitobans have done over the past few weeks, all the sacrifices people have made – especially front-line health-care workers – would be for naught. These numbers could change on a dime. It would take just one or two major outbreaks in a personal care home or a seniors residence to send infection numbers soaring. One church service or large park gathering could send dozens of people to hospital. This is a very infectious disease. It can spread like wildfire if you let it.

While Roussin said he’s encouraged by the test results, he’s concerned the public may interpret them to mean they can relax their physical-distancing measures.

Still, Manitobans deserve to know their efforts are paying off. The measures we’re taking are working. We’re preventing hospitals from being overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients. Which means we’re saving lives and helping protect front-line health workers. That’s the only thing that matters right now. Governments have no idea how long this will last or how many deaths we’ll see. Politicians have been pressured to release models that supposedly project infection rates, deaths and peak periods of transmission. But as Premier Brian Pallister has said repeatedly, those numbers are guesswork. They’re useless for planning purposes, largely because the assumptions they’re based on are unreliable.

The only thing we know for sure is that through physical distancing and targeted testing, we’re able to contain the virus. As Roussin has said repeatedly, we are not helpless against this disease. There are steps we can take to protect ourselves and others.

So far, we’re doing a good job of that. It’s now time to double down on those efforts.

Tom Brodbeck

Tom Brodbeck
Columnist

Tom has been covering Manitoba politics since the early 1990s and joined the Winnipeg Free Press news team in 2019.

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