Manitobans should brace for an increase in the spread of more infectious coronavirus variants, public health officials say, after dozens of such infections were confirmed Friday.
Acting deputy chief provincial public health officer Dr. Jazz Atwal said 46 previously reported COVID-19 cases had been determined to be caused by the more infectious B.1.1.7 mutation, which was first detected in the U.K.
"We are seeing higher numbers of the B.1.1.7 variant. We have seen some unknown acquisition of that," Atwal said. "We have seen small clusters related to a school or two. We have seen some occupations impacted by it as well, so occupational exposures."
Most of the cases were reported in the Winnipeg region and two were found in Southern Health. The single-day spike in known variant cases set a new record, surpassing the 18 reported March 15.
As of Friday, the National Microbiology Lab has confirmed 109 Manitoba cases to be caused by the B.1.1.7 variant and 14 caused by B.1.351, first detected in South Africa. The total number of cases caused by a variant of concern is 123.
Atwal said public health was expecting the number of cases caused by a variant of concern to increase in proportion to total COVID-19 cases as restrictions are eased and more people interact with each other.
The seven-day average for new cases in Manitoba is 93 cases per day.
"As anticipated, once a variant of concern sort of takes hold, we've seen this in other jurisdictions, the proportion of variants of concerns will increase. That's what we're seeing right now," Atwal said.
"Next week, we'll likely see some higher numbers related to that as well on a proportionate basis and an absolute basis."
The provincial government will only announce cases involving a variant of concern after receiving confirmation from the Winnipeg-based NML, a process that can take up to 10 days.
"Roughly 32 per cent of all cases in Manitoba right now are testing positive for a (variant of concern)," Atwal said.
According to the province, on a single day late last week, 32 per cent of COVID-19 cases screened by Cadham Provincial Lab were positive for the B.1.1.7 mutation.
"So we're keeping a sharp eye on it," Atwal said.
Cadham screens positive COVID-19 samples for mutations present in variants of concern, which takes 24 to 48 hours, meaning public health officials are aware of probable variant cases before confirmation from NML.
Atwal said the province will begin reporting cases caused by variants of concern in a more timely manner next week.
On Friday, 116 new COVID-19 cases and three more deaths were recorded in Manitoba.
Of the new cases, 51 were in Winnipeg, 55 in Northern Health, five in Southern Health, two Interlake-Eastern, and three in Prairie Mountain.
On Friday, new public health orders came into effect to allow for gathering sizes of 25 people at outdoor public places and at weddings and funerals, as well as increased capacity limits at retail settings.
For the time being, Atwal said public health is comfortable with the restrictions Manitoba has in place to stem the spread of COVID-19. However, he said, the province may be forced to hold off on further reopening, or even reinstate restrictions, if pandemic metrics take a turn for the worse.
There were 1,169 active cases in Manitoba, with 142 people in hospital (31 in intensive care). The five-day test positivity rate is 4.4 per cent in Manitoba, and 3.6 per cent in Winnipeg.
The deaths announced include: a man in his 70s from Interlake-Eastern; a man in his 60s from Northern Health; and a man in his 70s from Winnipeg.
Meanwhile, Atwal said the mass vaccination site at the RBC Convention Centre in downtown Winnipeg was experiencing substantial delays, after a software malfunction left the clinic short-staffed.
"As soon as the issue was identified, the team began reaching to bring additional staff on site," Atwal said. "We know that some patients are waiting beyond their time of their appointment, and we apologize for that."
The same site also experienced significant delays earlier in the week, after the province began testing a new immunization delivery model on the third-floor clinic. Later, technical issues with the province’s appointment system slowed down client registration.
As of Friday, 173,158 doses of COVID-19 vaccine had been given in Manitoba, about 70 per cent of all product received by the province.
As of Friday, age eligibility criteria had not changed from 65 years old for the general public, and 45 for First Nations individuals.
The province has issued a reminder: anyone who has been in Manitoba for one month or more, including international students, visitors, migrant workers and people providing caregiving to others, can receive the vaccine at no cost if they meet eligibility requirements.
Danielle Da Silva
Danielle Da Silva is a general assignment reporter.