As the number of highly contagious COVID-19 variant cases grows in Manitoba, troubling details have emerged about the contact-tracing effort to slow the virus's spread.
"We are really getting aggressive with our case and contact investigation," chief public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin said Monday.
"We are going to be treating most cases as if they were variants of concern until proven otherwise."
But on Wednesday, the owners of two Winnipeg restaurants and a hair salon, whose businesses were identified as potential exposure sites for variants last week, said public-health officials haven't asked them for contact-tracing data yet.
On Wednesday, the province announced nine more cases of the B.1.1.7 COVID-19 variant first identified in the U.K., all in the Winnipeg area.
Officials also warned of a possible exposure to the variant at the St. James Street Costco location on March 7. The total number of B.1.1.7 cases in Manitoba is 52. There are also 12 confirmed cases of the B.1.351 variant, which originated in South Africa. Nine cases are active, with three linked to a close contact of a known case; six are of unknown acquisition. It's unclear exactly how many of the total 64 cases were acquired unknowingly.
Manitoba health officials said on March 11 that probable carriers of the variant had visited Silver Heights Restaurant at 2169 Portage Ave. on March 5 from 5 to 7 p.m., and Chicken Chef at 3770 Portage Ave. on March 6 from 5 to 7 p.m. Garden City Hairstylists, in the Garden City Shopping Centre, was also listed as a possible exposure site from noon to 12:30 p.m. on March 6.
Silver Heights Restaurant owner Tony Siwicki has a list of customers and staff available for Manitoba Health, but he's "not been contacted since."
He said he spoke with his health inspector and a public-health nurse about the matter later in the day, after his restaurant was named as a possible exposure location. He wasn't asked for contact-tracing information by either. Instead, he was told there wasn't a risk to his staff or customers, he said.
The Free Press asked a provincial media spokesperson on Tuesday whether anyone had requested contact-tracing information from Siwicki's restaurant, and the newspaper was directed to the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority.
Mid-afternoon Wednesday, the WRHA directed the question to the federal First Nations and Inuit Health Branch, which the health authority said had handled the contact-tracing investigation. The First Nations health branch then directed the question to Indigenous Services Canada's media relations unit. The Free Press was told the province would provide the response. Shortly after 5 p.m. Wednesday, a government spokesperson said they wouldn't provide details on specific investigations.
Siwicki still does not know whether the case has been confirmed as a variant. He and his family got tested for COVID-19 after the province named the restaurant as a potential exposure location; their tests came back negative, but customers haven't returned.
"We’ve not had one table in our dining room since Saturday," he said.
Public-health officials haven't asked Chicken Chef owner Lori Lucas for contact-tracing information, either. She said she doesn't know whether the individual who visited her restaurant was infected with a variant, and she's under the impression officials don't need her information.
"Would I rather have someone going, ‘OK, who was in the restaurant?’ — again it wasn’t a confirmed case — yeah, I would’ve preferred that, just because I don’t like being blindsided, I don’t like anyone else being blindsided," Lucas said.
Svetlana Pechersky, who owns Garden City Hairstylists, said she hasn't been contacted for customer information either, despite being named by the province last Thursday.
"It’s a very difficult time we’re going through and very stressful," Pechersky said. "We didn't even have a chance to contact anyone."
"We've asked every single customer since Jan. 24 for their number."
"We've asked every single customer since Jan. 24 for their number." – Garden City Hairstylists owner Svetlana Pechersky
She said being publicly linked to the variant has been hard on her business, despite having followed all the regulations to the letter. She said it wasn't clear what she was supposed to do after the province named the salon.
The St. James Street Costco location's assistant manager said he couldn't say whether health officials had requested contact information, instead directing the Free Press to a corporate public relations office in the United States, which didn't respond Wednesday.
Most questions sent to the province weren't addressed in a late Wednesday response, including a request to expand on how the province is getting "more aggressive" with case and contact investigations, particularly regarding variants — as Roussin said Monday — whether more resources had been allocated to contact tracing and the total number of variant cases of unknown acquisition.
But a provincial spokesperson said the seven-day average for cases being contacted for COVID-19 from March 8 to March 14 were 87 per cent of cases reached in 24 hours, 97 per cent of cases reached in 48 hours.
Erik Pindera is a multimedia producer at the Winnipeg Free Press.