Reported cases of COVID-19 may be down slightly in Manitoba, but it doesn’t mean measures to contain the spread of the virus are working.
With hospital beds and intensive care units filling up at alarming rates, daily COVID-19 infection numbers have become less relevant during the second wave of the pandemic.
Reported cases of COVID-19 have fallen somewhat from daily highs of over 400 to around 275 to 350 this week. Much of that is because fewer people are getting tested.
A more meaningful metric, the test positivity rate, shows the infection rate among those tested hasn’t changed much over the past two weeks, hovering at around 13 to 14 per cent.
When the province went into code-red restrictions Nov. 12, the test positivity rate was 11 per cent.
It’s worse in Winnipeg (which has been in code red since Nov. 2) where the test positivity rate hit 14.9 per cent Thursday. These are hardly encouraging numbers.
But even more concerning is the escalation of COVID-19 patients in hospital. The goal of suppressing the virus is to protect hospital capacity and mitigate severe outcomes, including deaths. On both fronts, Manitoba is failing miserably.
It’s been three weeks since Manitoba went into code red. During that time, the number of COVID-19 patients in hospital has increased from 227 to 357 — a 57 per cent jump. The number of patients in intensive care has climbed from 34 to 52.
To put that into perspective, Ontario (with a population 10 times that of Manitoba) had 666 COVID-19 patients in hospital Thursday. Quebec, six times the size of Manitoba, had 737 patients in hospital beds.
It doesn’t matter what the daily case count of COVID–19 is, or even the test positivity rate. If patients continue to pile up in hospitals, the inability to treat people who require hospital care will reach dangerous levels.
There’s no question the restrictions in place in Manitoba are having some effect. Without them, hospitalizations and deaths would surely be much higher. But the province is failing to achieve the goal of protecting hospital capacity. Not only have hospital numbers not stabilized, they continue to grow.
It doesn’t matter what the daily case count of COVID-19 is, or even the test positivity rate. If patients continue to pile up in hospitals, the inability to treat people who require hospital care will reach dangerous levels (if they haven’t already).
Hospitalization numbers have always been an important metric to monitor during this pandemic. But they’re even more important now that community transmission is widespread across the province. Daily case counts from testing make up an increasingly smaller proportion of infections in the community. Even with 2,000 to 3,000 tests per day, testing is a less effective surveillance tool than it was earlier in the pandemic. It only picks up a fraction of the virus now circulating in the community.
The number of patients with COVID-19 requiring hospital care tells us far more.
It does take time for new restrictions to produce results. But the fact hospitalization numbers continue to rise three weeks after new measures were put in place is not a good sign.
Government has tried to put a brave face on these negative outcomes. Premier Brian Pallister said Thursday Manitoba is "the only jurisdiction that’s holding the line, somewhat, on COVID cases."
He says Manitoba needs to "continue in this direction."
That’s not only a misleading statement, it sends the wrong message. If Manitoba were to continue on its current path, the province’s hospital system would collapse.
It’s clear what the province is doing to suppress the virus is not good enough. Repeating the same message over and over — and insisting Manitoba’s hospital numbers are skyrocketing because a handful of lawbreakers are refusing to follow public health orders — is not working.
Going on another weepy rant, as Pallister did Thursday (this time about why he thinks Manitobans don’t like him) doesn’t help matters, either.
Manitoba needs to do a far better job of protecting the elderly and vulnerable groups from COVID-19 and find more effective ways of reducing the spread of the virus, like reinstating self-isolation rules for travellers from western provinces.
Manitoba's hospitals can't take much more of this.
Tom has been covering Manitoba politics since the early 1990s and joined the Winnipeg Free Press news team in 2019.