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A spike in illegal gatherings at private homes during the holiday season has prompted the provincial government to continue to impose code red restrictions across Manitoba for another two weeks.

The only significant change in the new public health order, which takes effect Saturday and runs until Jan. 22, is to allow the Winnipeg Jets to host regular season games in the city. The club's regular season is scheduled to begin at home on Thursday.

Health officials say there were numerous holiday gatherings — some involving as many as two dozen people — that they have directly linked to 355 of the province's current COVID-19 cases.

Manitoba's chief public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin: "we're taxing the health care system."

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Manitoba's chief public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin: "we're taxing the health care system."

Those infected people, in turn, have identified nearly 1,900 close contacts, which officials believe may be an underestimate.

These figures are expected to grow in the coming days when infections resulting from new year's celebrations are detected.

"Our numbers were going in the right direction, but now we're at risk of reversing that," said Dr. Brent Roussin, the province's chief public health officer, at a news conference.

On Friday, Manitoba reported 222 new cases of the novel coronavirus and nine additional deaths. The current five-day test positivity rate is 10.1 per cent provincially and 10.3 per cent in Winnipeg.

On Thursday, the number of new COVID-19 cases in Manitoba, at 208, exceeded 200 for the first time since before Christmas.

"Our numbers were going in the right direction, but now we're at risk of reversing that." — Dr. Brent Roussin, Manitoba's chief public health officer

"Our (test) positivity rates are too high. We see hospitalization and ICU (numbers that) are still high. So, we're taxing the health care system...," Roussin said in explaining the continued restrictions that have prevented many retailers and service providers from opening, outlawed home visits (with some exceptions) and limited the size of allowable gatherings (such as weddings and funerals) to five persons.

Assuming case numbers stabilize and trend lower in the next few weeks, Roussin said officials are "really hopeful" that restrictions can be loosened somewhat when the current health order expires.

"Beginning next week, we are going to launch consultations with Manitobans for feedback on potential future changes to the orders," he said. "And, that's, of course, if the numbers allow."

Meanwhile, there are no changes in the new public health order regarding schools.

The provincewide lockdown has been in effect for eight weeks. On Nov. 12, when it took effect, the province reported 474 new cases of COVID-19, bringing the provincial total then to 9,782. The total number of virus deaths at the time stood at 132.

"Beginning next week, we are going to launch consultations with Manitobans for feedback on potential future changes to the orders. And, that's, of course, if the numbers allow." — Dr. Brent Roussin

By Friday, Manitoba's total case count had climbed to 25,963, and the number of deaths had soared to 726.

Roussin said without the code red restrictions, however, the toll on Manitobans would have been far worse, and the health system would not be in a position to begin resuming elective (or non-urgent) surgeries next week, as is now planned.

Doctors Manitoba, which lobbies on behalf of the province's physicians, said in a statement that it supports the "short extension" of the current restrictions given that virus cases are rising and hospitals are still operating at "overcapacity."

"While the restrictions are necessary, we also know they are difficult, and Doctors Manitoba joins all Manitobans in looking forward to an easing of the restrictions so we can see family and friends soon," the statement said.

NDP Leader Wab Kinew said the renewed orders are a "clear sign that our health-care system is still very vulnerable."

Opposition leader NDP's Wab Kinew.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Opposition leader NDP's Wab Kinew.

"Being a leader is not just being there on the good days. It's also about showing up on tough days like this one." — NDP Leader Wab Kinew on Premier Brian Pallister's absence from Friday's briefing

Kinew called out Premier Brian Pallister for not attending the announcement with Roussin and Shared Health chief nursing officer Lanette Siragusa on Friday.

"Being a leader is not just being there on the good days," the Opposition leader said. "It's also about showing up on tough days like this one."

Kinew said Pallister should have been there to empathize with citizens who are going through a particularly tough time because of the pandemic and offer additional support.

Many business owners will be upset by the news that the restrictions are continuing, he said.

"A real leader for our province would have shown up today to explain to them why these measures are needed. A real leader would have stepped up with more supports for businesses," Kinew said.

The nine COVID-19 deaths reported Friday include five people from the Winnipeg health region, three people in their 50s, one in their 60s, two in their 70s, one in their 80s and two in their 90s.

larry.kusch@freepress.mb.ca

Larry Kusch

Larry Kusch
Legislature reporter

Larry Kusch didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life until he attended a high school newspaper editor’s workshop in Regina in the summer of 1969 and listened to a university student speak glowingly about the journalism program at Carleton University in Ottawa.

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