Another COVID-19 surge in Manitoba’s Southern Health region could be on the horizon as case counts and hospitalizations rise.
With a per-capita infection rate about four times higher than Winnipeg’s and the lowest vaccination rates in the province, Southern Health is experiencing increases in the number of patients — most of whom are unvaccinated — who need intensive care.
Over the past 10 days, three patients had to be transferred from Winkler-Morden’s Boundary Trails Health Centre to receive ICU treatment in Winnipeg. The health centre takes in all COVID-19 patients from the region who need higher levels of medical attention.
The numbers are small — so far nowhere near the third-wave spike in patient transfers that overwhelmed Manitoba ICUs — but another surge could hit in three or four weeks, said Winkler Dr. Ganesan Abbu.
"What I’m fearful of (is) that we’re going to see younger patients, we’re going to see more children that are going to need hospitalization," he said Tuesday.
"I keep my sanity by believing that I’m doing the best I can and I’ll continue to do the best I can for all my patients."
Nearly half of the new cases detected in Manitoba as of Tuesday morning (23 of 56) were among Southern Health residents. Its health districts of Stanley, Hanover and Winkler have the lowest vaccination rates in the province.
However, it is not the lone trouble spot. Northern Health holds the highest rate of current active cases per 100,000 people and is a close second for the most new cases per capita.
When asked about the rise in cases Tuesday, Winkler Mayor Martin Harder said it’s fatiguing. He predicted the discord between pro- and anti-vaccine residents will outlast the pandemic.
"We have exhausted all our energy trying to do things right," he said, but now the community is being "ridiculed" on all sides.
"It has created a division for those that are strongly opposed to the vaccine. Their minds aren’t changing. And for those that have been vaccinated, their minds aren’t changing."
Harder described being briefed on a police report in the past week about a charged confrontation between local shoppers, one masked and one unmasked.
"It’s almost like road rage, with a shopping cart," he said. "The most evil part of people is showing up."
When asked what he’s doing to address the low rate of COVID-19 vaccination in Southern Health, Steinbach MLA and newly appointed Premier Kelvin Goertzen said Tuesday he and his wife and 14-year-old son have been very open about getting vaccinated.
"It’s not just about being an elected official — you really are talking about friends and neighbours," the premier said.
Goertzen said he and others, including pharmacists, are using those connections to address vaccine hesitancy and reminding people vaccination is the best protection against a virus that can be deadly.
"I think it’s had some effect," Goertzen said.
In the city of Steinbach, the vaccination rate Monday was at 63 per cent, he said; it was 60.5 per cent Aug. 25.
Health Minister Audrey Gordon said the Southern Health region is assisting people to get vaccinated by setting up pop-up clinics.
"We’re encouraging individuals through the school program that will start next week to get vaccinated, so we increase the number of individuals who are protected against this horrible disease," Gordon said.
On Monday, chief provincial public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin said public health is seeing higher test positivity rates, case counts and intensive-care admissions in Southern Health. Most COVID-19 patients in Manitoba ICUs are unvaccinated.
"We’re following those case numbers quite closely and if transmission continues on this way, then we could be at risk (similar to) our neighbours to the west (Saskatchewan and Alberta) who are seeing much higher cases," he said.
— with files from Carol Sanders and Michael Pereira
Katie May reports on courts, crime and justice for the Free Press.