Manitobans appear to be getting the message about reducing their number of contacts in the battle against COVID-19, Premier Brian Pallister said Sunday.
Pallister, in a wide-ranging interview on Rosemary Barton Live on CBC TV, said contact tracing is showing a 25 per cent reduction in the number of contacts in households where there has been a positive test result. As well, he gave the first indication the province has eliminated a contact-tracing backlog that had slowed efforts to slow transmission of the virus.
"Our focus has been to try and encourage and limit the number of contacts people have and our initial step up was two weeks ago before this week and we’re already starting to see, thankfully, on the contact tracing data that the number of contacts that people have had that are contracting COVID is coming down," he said.
"There’s zero backlogs on tracking and tracing right now in our province and we’ve got hundreds of people we’re adding to our tracking to keep that system going."
In the same interview, Pallister both inflated the number of protesters and blamed a Steinbach anti-mask rally for that city's 40 per cent COVID-19 positivity rate.
"We had about 700 people gather together last weekend and decided that they would have an idiotic protest and that they would not wear masks or protect one another," said Pallister. "It’s also clear that as a direct consequence of that, the number of COVID cases have been bolstered there."
Estimates by CBC and the Winnipeg Free Press put the crowd size between 100 and 200 people, and Manitoba's chief public health officer, Dr. Brent Roussin, has said he does not see a direct link between last weekend's protest and rising COVID-19 positive test numbers.
A spokesperson for the premier said later on Sunday the exact number of protesters was less important than the underlying message about following public health orders.
"While there have been varying estimates of the number of attendees at last weekend’s rally in Steinbach, the point remains the same: large gatherings, particularly those that overtly disobey public health orders, are irresponsible and are putting Manitobans at greater risk of exposure to COVID-19," said the spokesperson.
Manitoba announced a new pandemic-high of 288 people in hospital and 52 currently in ICU on Sunday afternoon. The province also announced 243 new COVID-19 cases, a 13.7 test positivity rate and 12 additional deaths — including a male in his 40s from Winnipeg. Four of the deaths are linked to outbreaks at four different personal care homes and one is linked to the outbreak at Victoria General Hospital.
Over the past week, Manitoba reported nearly 2,600 new cases and 67 additional deaths.
Pallister defended his government's handling of the pandemic, pinning part of the problem on a complacency built up during a summer when the active case count had, at one point, dropped to a single case.
"I think the fundamental reality is that we’re in part at least victims of our own earlier success," Pallister said in the interview.
"As you know, we’ve had virtually no cases through much of the summer. So, now what we’re seeing is people going inside and some, most are not, but some are disrespecting the rules that we put in place, so we stepped up our enforcements."
All of Manitoba moved to code red, or critical, on the pandemic response system on Nov. 12, but more restrictions were put into place on Thursday: retailers can no longer sell non-essential items in stores, and people must only socialize with members of their household.
Manitoba Public Health bolstered the premier's assertion that contact tracing is now up to date.
"Contact tracing is an ongoing, evolving process that has peaks and valleys of volume. Manitoba has added significant resources and is making every effort to have tracing occur quickly, but that work depends on the volume of positive cases," according to Public Health.
Pallister defended his government’s decision-making during the pandemic thus far and said the increase in cases isn’t an isolated issue — Saskatchewan, Ontario, Alberta and New Brunswick all reported a record high single-day increase of COVID-19 cases on Saturday.
The premier said "there’s always room for hindsight," but he believes the government did not wait too long to put the latest restrictions in place.
Pallister said he hopes people see how much he cares about Manitobans in his handling of the virus.
"When I see people dying in my province, it hurts me, and it hurts the families obviously that I care deeply for," he said. "So, I do hope you don’t think I’m being defensive. I’m being caring here in telling you that we are doing our absolute best and we’re stepping up."