COVID-19 cases in Manitoba are expected to rise during the holiday season, as the province confirmed four more cases of the omicron variant Wednesday.

COVID-19 cases in Manitoba are expected to rise during the holiday season, as the province confirmed four more cases of the omicron variant Wednesday.

A surge of primarily unvaccinated patients continues to overburden hospitals as the province contends with the arrival of omicron. In total, Manitoba had confirmed five omicron cases as of Wednesday afternoon: two are travel-related, and the other three are close contacts who are self-isolating and don’t have symptoms, the province announced.

COVID-19 case counts are expected to increase over the next two to four weeks, said deputy chief provincial public health officer Dr. Jazz Atwal. As the holiday-gathering season approaches, Atwal indicated public-health officials will review Manitoba’s use of rapid tests, but he suggested using them on people who don’t have symptoms would be a waste of the supply.

"It’s almost impossible to mitigate risk completely when we’re looking at asymptomatic testing in scenarios like this, and it’s not a good use of resources. So we have to manage those resources and expectations, and when we’re doing the tests, they have to be done a certain way for them to be accurate, otherwise, some people might find a false sense of reassurance with a negative test," he said.

To stay ahead of omicron, rapid tests could be a helpful tool in addition to getting a third dose of vaccine and using three-layer masks, said University of Manitoba immunologist Deanna Santer, who studies immune response to viruses. Manitoba should have implemented greater use of rapid tests earlier in the pandemic, as was done in other provinces and countries, she said.

"It may not be as ideal for asymptomatic people, but it is one tool that we have not used enough. If, let’s say, a child or an adult had any cold symptoms, it would be nice to just have those rapid tests available to get that result and just make sure you know to isolate even faster."

Early research indicates the immune system, boosted with three doses of vaccine, will effectively fight off the omicron variant.

"It’s only been a few days since the omicron variant has been identified, and there’s been a lot of panic and already misinformation out there. So I think it’s important for people to know that we will get the data," Santer said.

Early research shows the third-dose booster shot effectively protects against the omicron variant, so Manitoba’s vaccine task force urges anyone who had their second dose at least six months ago to get a third shot now.

Atwal said Wednesday the province won’t release details about the confirmed omicron (B.1.1.529) cases to protect individuals’ privacy and not stigmatize them.

Public-health officials completed their contact-tracing investigation of the first omicron case, which was announced Tuesday, and determined there is no risk to the public, Atwal said.

He added officials have taken "extra measures" to make sure the infected person and close contacts follow quarantine rules.

The most effective public-health messaging is as open and clear as possible, even when there are many unknowns, said Michelle Driedger, a U of M community health sciences professor who researches public-health risk communication.

She said she understands the importance of not creating undue stigma by naming the countries visited by the travellers, but the public needs to know what public-health officials are doing to mitigate the spread.

"One would hope that public health can find that good balance, between wanting to protect people’s privacy while still providing some kinds of assurances around exactly what it is that they are doing, because that can be done in a way that doesn’t violate individual privacy."

Monika Warren, provincial COVID-19 operations chief for Shared Health, said case counts driven by unvaccinated patients are still causing slow increases in ICU numbers.

Six patients were admitted to intensive-care units Monday, marking the highest number of admissions in one day since the third wave last spring, and there were four more admissions Tuesday.

As of 12:01 a.m. Wednesday, 98 patients were in Manitoba ICUs, which is 26 above baseline capacity. Thirty-four COVID-19 patients with active infections were in ICU as of Wednesday morning. All but one were unvaccinated.

Katie May

Katie May

Katie May is a general-assignment reporter for the Free Press.