After claiming on national television over the weekend that Manitoba had eliminated its contact-tracing backlog, Premier Brian Pallister refused to answer questions from local reporters as Opposition politicians and the province’s nurses union disputed his statement.

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After claiming on national television over the weekend that Manitoba had eliminated its contact-tracing backlog, Premier Brian Pallister refused to answer questions from local reporters as Opposition politicians and the province’s nurses union disputed his statement.

On Monday, Manitoba posted 546 new infections — the largest daily case count of the pandemic – as questions mounted about the Progressive Conservative government’s ability to trace coronavirus contacts and contain the contagion.

Chief provincial public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin reported the 500-plus cases alongside the deaths of seven more Manitobans and a record-setting number of people in hospital with COVID-19 — 296 as of Monday morning, including 52 in intensive care.

The spike in cases came just days after Pallister said in an interview with the national broadcaster that the province had caught up on all of its contact tracing investigations.

"Our contact-trace backlog this morning was zero," Pallister said in an interview with CBC host Rosemary Barton that was taped Friday and broadcast Sunday morning.

However, according to the Manitoba Nurses Union — which represents public health nurses who are on the frontlines of contact tracing — case investigations were still outstanding as of the weekend.

"These nurses have been required to work an excessive amount of overtime, evenings and weekends, and they have been frequently mandated," Manitoba Nurses Union president Darlene Jackson said. "They are typically required to stay at work until they have completed an investigation, which means sometimes they must stay until close to midnight. They have been dealing with high case volumes for months now, and are reaching the point of exhaustion."

Manitoba breaks daily COVID-19 record: 546 new cases

It's not the record Manitobans wanted to shatter: the province reported 546 new COVID-19 infections on Monday, the highest daily case count.

In addition, there are more people being treated in hospital: 296 as of Monday morning. The previous high was 288, reported on Sunday. In intensive care units, 52 people are fighting for their lives, the province said.

Dr. Brent Roussin, the province's chief public health officer, said on Monday the numbers continue to show Manitobans have to follow public health restrictions. Before Monday, the highest number of positive cases announced in one day was 494, on Nov. 15.

It's not the record Manitobans wanted to shatter: the province reported 546 new COVID-19 infections on Monday, the highest daily case count.

In addition, there are more people being treated in hospital: 296 as of Monday morning. The previous high was 288, reported on Sunday. In intensive care units, 52 people are fighting for their lives, the province said.

Dr. Brent Roussin, the province's chief public health officer, said on Monday the numbers continue to show Manitobans have to follow public health restrictions. Before Monday, the highest number of positive cases announced in one day was 494, on Nov. 15.

"We need to bring these numbers down," Roussin said.

"Go out only for essentials and socialize only with people in your own household."

Roussin also said another seven Manitobans had died, noting sadly that the best he can do to honour each of them is announce their age, gender, what health region they are from, and whether they are part of a known outbreak or not.

He said on Nov. 1 there had been 75 deaths recorded during the pandemic, but now, just 23 days later there has been a total of 236 deaths.

"In just 23 days, we have had 161 deaths," Roussin said.

"We all know these are Manitobans who are loved and who are missed. I know many family and friends are missing them right now."

The latest deaths include a woman in her 90s from Winnipeg, who is linked to the outbreak at the Maples Long-Term Care Home; a woman in her 70s from the outbreak at the Holy Family Personal Care Home; two women in their 80s and a man in his 60s in Winnipeg not linked to an outbreak; a man in his 80s from the Southern Health Region linked to the Menno Home outbreak, and a man in his 70s from Southern Health not linked to an outbreak.

The current five-day positivity rate in Winnipeg is 13.8 per cent and 14 per cent provincially. According to the province, 2,798 tests were completed at the laboratories on Sunday.

Winnipeg has 368 of the 546 new cases, followed by Southern Health with 118 cases, 27 in Northern Health, 21 in Interlake-Eastern, and 12 in Prairie Mountain.

There are currently 8,498 active cases and there have been a total of 236 deaths. The total number of lab-confirmed cases in Manitoba is 14,087.

Meanwhile, outbreaks have been declared at the Flin Flon Personal Care Home in Flin Flon and the Charleswood Care Centre in Winnipeg.

kevin.rollason@freepress.mb.ca

Daily case counts have frequently exceeded 400 in recent weeks and Manitoba’s contact-tracing workforce had less than 300 people, the province said about a week ago.

"Even this past weekend they were still dealing with a backlog of cases, and now with a record number today, we fear that the situation will only worsen," Jackson said.

Health Minister Cameron Friesen refused to say — when asked repeatedly in the legislature Monday — how many contact tracers work for the government.

At different points during question period, he said the government had increased its contact tracing by 30 per cent in the space of a month, and that many more tracers will be added in the coming days "with the goal of managing an additional 100 new cases per day within a space of just a few weeks."

Asked how many public health nurses are doing contact tracing and what percentage of COVID-19 contacts are being called within 24 hours of a positive test result, Friesen said the answer to both questions was "more all the time."

"Go out only for essentials and socialize only with people in your own household," Dr. Brent Roussin said Monday.</p></p>

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

"Go out only for essentials and socialize only with people in your own household," Dr. Brent Roussin said Monday.

The premier’s assessment of contact tracing in the province didn’t line up with that of the top doctor on Monday, either.

When asked whether contact tracing is indeed up to date, Roussin said "almost all cases" reported to his office each day can expect to hear from a public health nurse within 24 hours to begin an investigation.

"Some proportion of those, just depending on the number of cases that day and the time of day it comes in, are carried over to the next day," Roussin said.

Previously, throughout the summer and early fall, the province endeavoured to reach 90 per cent of close contacts to a case within 24 hours to advise them to go into isolation.

Now, Roussin said the expectation is that the vast majority of the 546 people newly diagnosed with COVID-19 will get a call from a public health nurse within a 24-hour period, but complex contact-tracing investigations can slow that effort.

"There may be a number of those people now that have these one or two contacts, then our contact investigation is much quicker. We know investigating certain cases who have numerous contacts or different settings, then it’s much more complex," Roussin said.

Still, it remains unclear how long it takes for public health to reach close contacts of confirmed cases to tell them they must self-isolate.

“Relying on excessive overtime to handle case volumes is not a sustainable solution. The Pallister government must do more to ensure our public health system can adequately respond to the growing surge, and help reduce further spread of COVID in our communities.” – Manitoba Nurses Union president Darlene Jackson

On Monday, the province did not provide an answer when asked how many close contacts of cases had yet to be reached by public health as of that morning.

Meanwhile, Jackson said delays in public health nurses receiving positive test results from the laboratories and data entry are furthering the backlog in case investigations.

"Relying on excessive overtime to handle case volumes is not a sustainable solution," Jackson said "The Pallister government must do more to ensure our public health system can adequately respond to the growing surge, and help reduce further spread of COVID in our communities."

That sentiment was echoed by Manitoba Government and General Employees’ Union president Michelle Gawronsky, who said staff at Cadham Provincial Laboratory are working at 300 per cent of their normal capacity to process samples.

"Since the pandemic hit, Cadham Lab employees have stepped up to the challenge, processing thousands of samples, working tremendous amounts of overtime and at a pace they have never seen before.

"In October, we wrote to the premier raising these concerns and called for him to immediately hire more medical lab technologists to process COVID-19 samples. Today, we are still waiting and these members are still in the same boat," Gawronsky said. "As cases and deaths continue to rise, it’s critical the government make the investments needed at Cadham Lab so we can ensure samples are processed as quickly as possible."

Health Minister Cameron Friesen refused to say — when asked repeatedly in the legislature Monday — how many contact tracers work for the government.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Health Minister Cameron Friesen refused to say — when asked repeatedly in the legislature Monday — how many contact tracers work for the government.

Following question period on Monday, NDP Leader Wab Kinew said the government likely doesn’t want to divulge how many contact tracers it has because health experts could conclude the province has too few to do the job.

The Opposition cast doubt on how the government can say it has no backlog in contact tracing when the source of the infection in many cases is unknown or pending the result of an investigation.

Kinew accused Pallister, in his weekend comments, of "engaging in a bid of misdirection."

"The real issue is how long does it take from when you get a positive test to when you get a call from a public health nurse," he said.

"We’re still hearing that it takes a week or more for most people. At that point, that means there are people circulating in the community – even through no fault of their own – unaware that they may have COVID."

Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont said teachers are telling him that health officials are failing to tell them when someone in their class tests positive.

"There are (teachers) who had multiple cases of COVID in their class and yet have never received a call from public health. They only ever heard from parents."

— with files from Kevin Rollason

larry.kusch@freepress.mb.ca

danielle.dasilva@freepress.mb.ca

Danielle Da Silva

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Danielle Da Silva is a general assignment reporter.

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Larry Kusch

Larry Kusch
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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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