People living in the Southern Health region are being infected with COVID-19 at a rate fivefold Manitoba's capital city, as small communities continue to grapple with low vaccine uptake and ongoing spread of the novel coronavirus.
The latest numbers from the province show Southern Health — home to more than 207,000 residents across 27,000 square kilometres — notched 10 cases per 100,000 people a day in the last seven days, compared to the two per 100,000 reported in Winnipeg.
On Thursday, the region again led the province in new COVID-19 cases, with 28 infections reported across the patchwork of communities that include Altona, Winkler, Morden, Portage la Prairie and Steinbach. Of the new cases, 25 were in people who were not fully vaccinated.
Steinbach Mayor Earl Funk said he is concerned about the impact COVID-19 will have on his community and neighbours, as cold and flu season picks up and people spend more time indoors.
As of Thursday, Steinbach had the second-highest per capita infection rate in Southern Health, after the surrounding health district of Hanover.
The two communities also have the highest number of active cases in the region, with nearly two dozen cases reported at area schools in the past two weeks.
"As we get into fall, we get into flu season and the (delta) variant can just make this all that more volatile," Funk said. "The spread of germs starts with us. We have to make sure that we stop it ourselves."
Uptake of the COVID-19 vaccine across Southern Health continues to be below the provincial average at 65.3 per cent, as of Thursday; in Steinbach and Hanover, uptake was at 63.9 per cent and 49.4 per cent, respectively.
Funk said vaccination levels in the city are slowly increasing and he is confident neighbours will get on board with the shot as a way to protect the community.
"It’s getting better — it’s not where we need to be yet — but it’s getting better," the mayor said.
Local compliance with public health orders, including wearing masks in indoor public places and COVID-19 vaccination requirements, has been reasonable, and Steinbach has not experienced the same level of public animosity seen in other places, Funk said.
About 130 kilometres west, in the community of Winkler, escalating disputes between neighbours over mask use and vaccination prompted a weekend plea by the local police chief for civility and change.
Winkler has the second-lowest vaccine uptake in the province, and the third-highest number of active cases in Southern Health, though testing may not be capturing the majority of cases in the community.
"If we all remember to be kind, I think we can go a long way," Funk said.
The Free Press requested the test-positivity rate for Southern Health from the province Thursday, but it was not provided because it would "not provide an accurate reflection of the situation in the region," a provincial spokesperson said.
Across Manitoba, the positivity rate was 2.3 per cent, and one per cent in Winnipeg.
However, public health estimates community transmission is behind 46 per cent of recent cases in Southern Health, meaning nearly half of all infections can’t be traced back to a source.
Souradet Shaw, a University of Manitoba assistant professor of community health sciences, said it is possible the rate of infection in the region will accelerate.
"It is important to note that people tend to cluster by vaccine status — you are more likely to hang around people with the same vaccination status as yourself. So the risk of acquiring the virus is not entirely random," Shaw said. "Once the virus gets into vulnerable pockets, we will see very rapid spread within these pockets.
"I believe this is what we are seeing right now in Southern Health: a series of ‘jumps’ from one pocket to another. The most obvious places where these jumps can be successful (other than within and between households) are in schools and workplaces, and the activities that are associated with either."
With sustained community transmission, Shaw said outbreaks at schools, hospitals, workplaces and personal care homes will also increase.
"We need to ensure that the populations within these settings are protected as much as possible."
Danielle Da Silva
Danielle Da Silva is a general assignment reporter.