As Manitoba's COVID-19 infection rates reach some of their highest yet, with more than 2,000 new cases recorded over the past four days, the pace of the vaccine rollout is offering a glimmer of hope that the province is in a better position now compared with last fall.

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As Manitoba's COVID-19 infection rates reach some of their highest yet, with more than 2,000 new cases recorded over the past four days, the pace of the vaccine rollout is offering a glimmer of hope that the province is in a better position now compared with last fall.

Dr. Brent Roussin, Manitoba's chief provincial public health officer, said Monday it's too soon to say if restrictions would be loosened when public health orders expire at the end of the month. The orders, which came into effect Sunday, are the strictest measures Manitoba has had since second-wave lockdown restrictions were lifted in February.

"We are considering a significant amount of Manitobans protected by the end of May, so we really wanted to have that opportunity to review things very closely, see if there's any chances to loosen some of these restrictions at that point," Roussin said.

Contact tracing less effective at 500 cases a day

As community transmission drives large daily COVID-19 case counts, the province's top doctor warned contact tracing is less effective in the province.

Dr. Brent Roussin said contact tracers still have a handle on the situation, but their work is diminishing in value every time community transmission of the virus increases.

As community transmission drives large daily COVID-19 case counts, the province's top doctor warned contact tracing is less effective in the province.

Dr. Brent Roussin said contact tracers still have a handle on the situation, but their work is diminishing in value every time community transmission of the virus increases.

"Right now our contact tracing is still within our targets, and we did a lot of work to be able to expand that, so right now, we're not at risk of overcoming our abilities to contact trace," Roussin said.

"We just have to remember that when we see widespread community-based transmission — we're starting to see 500 cases a day — the benefits of contact tracing are diminished. Contact tracing is very useful when we're seeing limited spread and we can interrupt transmission chains that way.

"Right now, when we have 500 cases a day with a lot of community transmission, most of the cases we're identifying, we can't link to other cases, so it has a diminishing value."

That's why public health measures are necessary, he said, "because contact tracing alone, when you have this much community transmission, won't be able to reverse it."

There's a concern some Manitobans aren't being forthcoming with contact tracers because they're scared they'll get fined for violating orders. That won't happen, Roussin said, stressing that people need to be honest.

He also said household members of people getting tested for the coronavirus are not isolating.

“We’ve seen too many samples of unnecessary contacts with this,” said Roussin, urging people to stay home until they know their relative or roommate has received a negative result.

For the third day since Friday, Manitoba recorded more than 500 new cases of COVID-19 — matching the province’s third-highest daily case count since the beginning of the pandemic. Another grim milestone is on the horizon as the province's death toll from the virus rose to 997, with four more deaths announced Monday.

The province's modelling data, which public health officials used to order all restaurants, gyms and religious gatherings to close effective Sunday, will be released publicly, Roussin said Monday, although he wouldn't give a specific date. Public-health officials previously refused to release their projections, but Roussin said he expected the provincial projections to be released "in short order."

"It shows that our trend's in the wrong direction, that we needed to act, and that without changing our behaviours right now, we're going to see increasing cases and increasing demands on the health-care system," he said.

He said despite a three-week "circuit breaker" that orders schools in Winnipeg and Brandon to close and switch to remote learning as of Wednesday, the plan is to have students back in class by June 1.

Roussin repeated Monday that sleepovers have been a source of COVID-19 transmission. When asked for data on how many cases have been traced to sleepovers, a provincial spokesperson said Roussin was referring to "anecdotal information" from contact tracers, and no data was provided.

Winnipeg epidemiologist Cynthia Carr said if Manitobans get vaccinated as soon as they're eligible, it's likely the current public-health measures could be lifted much sooner than second-wave restrictions, which were in place for more than three months.

"I want to be clear, we are in a better situation, through an amazing achievement of science; we have vaccine," she said.

"We'll be in a better position but we have to participate in the vaccine campaign."

On Monday, the province expanded vaccine eligibility to Manitobans 30 and older.

Test-positivity rates continued to climb Monday, with 11.6 per cent in Manitoba and 13.8 per cent in Winnipeg.

There are 3,771 active cases of COVID-19, 1,345 of which involve more contagious variants.

Within ICUs, the province reported 60 patients in intensive care with COVID-19, 12 of whom are no longer infectious.

katie.may@freepress.mb.ca

Katie May

Katie May
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Katie May reports on courts, crime and justice for the Free Press.

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