The rampaging Omicron strain of the COVID-19 virus is leaving a trail of destruction across Manitoba, with record cases hammering health care, shuttering businesses and schools, disrupting vital services and locking down First Nations in the latest — and out-of-control — wave of the pandemic.

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The rampaging Omicron strain of the COVID-19 virus is leaving a trail of destruction across Manitoba, with record cases hammering health care, shuttering businesses and schools, disrupting vital services and locking down First Nations in the latest — and out-of-control — wave of the pandemic.

"It has just been a nightmare," Golden Links Lodge CEO Marcy-Lynn Larner said Friday, after an outbreak was declared at the 88-bed personal-care home near King’s Park on St. Mary’s Road; eight employees are infected with the virus and six others are isolating with symptoms.

"We’re coming into another weekend and again we’re scrambling to try and fill all our shifts. Something has to change because our staff can’t continue to operate like this."

More than 915 health-care workers, including 194 nurses, tested positive between Christmas and New Year’s Day as the virus had spread like wildfire through more than 30 facilities in the province as of Friday.

<p>MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES</p><p>"It has just been a nightmare," Golden Links Lodge CEO Marcy-Lynn Larner said.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

"It has just been a nightmare," Golden Links Lodge CEO Marcy-Lynn Larner said.

"There are no resources, there’s really nothing to pull from," Larner said, adding staff are still traumatized from a devastating outbreak last fall.

"It’s heartbreaking to go into work day in and day out and to see our residents and the toll it has taken on them. It’s irreparable," she said.

A jaw-dropping 3,265 new infections were reported in Manitoba Friday, bringing the total number of confirmed cases over the the past 10 days to 17,260.

However, that number is a significant undercount due to insufficient laboratory testing and wider deployment of rapid tests, results of which are not tracked by the government.

The province reported 16 deaths related to COVID-19 in the past 10 days, along with significantly increased hospital admissions.

<p>Daily case count average</p>

Daily case count average

Skyrocketing infection numbers and suspected cases have cut wide swaths through the public sector, producing acute staffing shortages straining police, Winnipeg Transit and other emergency services.

Winnipeg Police Chief Danny Smyth declared a state of emergency Wednesday in order to redeploy officers to general patrol; 170 employees were absent due to COVID-19 related leave, including 90 sick with the virus.

The city said at least 351 of its employees had tested positive as of Thursday, including 76 at Winnipeg Transit and 85 in the Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service.

Not all transit routes are operating on schedule, as a result. The fire-paramedic service was strained but stable as of Thursday, a city spokesman said.

<p>JESSE BOILY / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES </p>
Not all transit routes are operating on schedule as a result of 76 transit employees testing positive as of Thursday.

JESSE BOILY / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Not all transit routes are operating on schedule as a result of 76 transit employees testing positive as of Thursday.

There are at least 97 active cases in eight correctional institutions. The province said there are 34 active cases connected to Headingley Correctional Institution and 24 at Milner Ridge.

Manitoba Justice declined to say how many cases involved staff, saying it would not be appropriate to discuss "current staffing issues" in detail.

"In general, like in the community and at health-care facilities, correctional facilities are experiencing staffing challenges due to sick calls," a spokesperson said in a statement Friday. "The department is making adjustments to ensure that facilities can be safely managed."

Despite calls by critics, infectious-disease experts and physicians to tighten public-health restrictions to slow the virus surge, the provincial government decided to maintain the status quo for the next three weeks. Current orders that restrict public and private gathering sizes, cap capacity at most venues by 50 per cent or to 250 people, and prohibit liquor sales at restaurants and bars after 10 p.m. will remain in effect until Feb. 1, Health Minister Audrey Gordon announced by press release Friday afternoon.

“Nothing is off the table and we will act swiftly in the weeks ahead if further action is required to protect Manitobans.” – Health Minister Audrey Gordon in a press release

"While these orders remain in place, we continue to take steps to improve supply and access to testing and other important initiatives that support our pandemic response and protect our health system," she said in a statement.

"Nothing is off the table and we will act swiftly in the weeks ahead if further action is required to protect Manitobans."

Opposition NDP health critic Uzoma Asagwara slammed the government for not implementing stronger measures to bring community spread under control while schools are forced to go into at least one week of remote learning when classes resume Monday after an extended Christmas break.

"For a lot of Manitobans, the prospect of a further delay to schools reopening is one of their biggest concerns," Asagwara said in a statement. "If we are going to make a safe return to school a priority, and protect the health-care system, we need to take steps to reduce community spread.

"The premier owes Manitobans an explanation as to why she won’t do that."

"Most restaurants are operating at maybe 40 per cent of their required staff. They’re losing staff right, left and centre to this new variant and a lot of them aren’t coming back even after they’re able to.” – Manitoba Restaurant and Foodservices Association executive director Shaun Jeffrey

And despite public-health orders allowing business owners to operate with limited capacity, some have been forced to close or cut back services.

Manitoba Restaurant and Foodservices Association executive director Shaun Jeffrey said the staffing shortages experienced by his members have only worsened over recent weeks.

"With Omicron, it’s just exponentially grown. Most restaurants are operating at maybe 40 per cent of their required staff. They’re losing staff right, left and centre to this new variant and a lot of them aren’t coming back even after they’re able to," Jeffrey said.

Some association members have reduced operating hours or simply closed their doors, he said.

"It’s like we’re in that boxing match and no matter how we get ahead we take six blows to the gut," he said. "We’re really struggling to get people to come back. We’re open, we need them, we want to serve people."

“Until we deal with the virus and give people the PPE, you’re just sending more workers in to get sick.” – U of M labour studies professor Julia Smith

University of Manitoba labour studies professor Julia Smith said the Omicron wave has put renewed emphasis on the importance of controlling spread in order to maintain critical services and the economy.

"Humans, we’re a finite resource, there’s only so many bodies you can send into a place if we haven’t dealt with the transmissibility," Smith said. "Until we deal with the virus and give people the PPE, you’re just sending more workers in to get sick."

Unless significant steps are taken to control spread — such as "circuit-breakers" that have been called for by some medical experts — current labour shortages will continue or worsen, she said.

"This is a labour issue and it is really showing us how important working people are to the functioning of our economy and our society," she said. "If workers can’t work, things start to shut down and we see these massive disruptions."

Leaders in remote and northern communities, meanwhile, have called for governments to ensure essential services will continue to be provided once Omicron begins its assault in those regions.

<p>MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES</p><p>“Our leaders are raising the alarm over the need to ensure planning is done now to ensure our communities have access to sufficient health-care staff as well as essential-service workers,” says Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak Grand Chief Garrison Settee.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

“Our leaders are raising the alarm over the need to ensure planning is done now to ensure our communities have access to sufficient health-care staff as well as essential-service workers,” says Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak Grand Chief Garrison Settee.

"Our leaders are raising the alarm over the need to ensure planning is done now to ensure our communities have access to sufficient health-care staff as well as essential-service workers," Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak Grand Chief Garrison Settee said Friday, noting a lack of health workers has delayed the rollout of booster shots in the North.

More than a dozen First Nations communities across Manitoba have already introduced lockdowns or tightened restrictions in an effort to get ahead of the highly infectious variant.

"We’re in for a bit of a rough ride over the next few weeks," said Long Plain Chief Dennis Meeches, whose community has been in a lockdown since Dec. 23.

"We really need to listen to our health professionals, Manitoba Health, and maybe they need to look at this a bit more closely and possibly introduce more measures to address the growing threat of Omicron," he said.

danielle.dasilva@freepress.mb.ca

Danielle Da Silva

Danielle Da Silva
Reporter

Danielle Da Silva is a general assignment reporter.