As Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Canada’s top doctor issued dire warnings about the increasing spread of COVID-19 across the country, Manitoba stared down its own deepening crisis as test positivity rates hit shocking levels in some parts of the province.
On Friday, Manitoba chief public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin said the 10-day test positivity rate in Steinbach, the province’s third-largest city with more than 15,800 residents, had reached 40 per cent. In the Rural Municipality of Hanover, the 10-day test positivity rate is at 30 per cent and climbing. In comparison, the five-day test positivity rate for the entire province was 13.7 per cent.
"These numbers here, of course in smaller areas… with lower denominators, there’s a lot of variability," Roussin said. "But when you’re looking at something like 40 per cent, we just know this is a very concerning number and we need things to change in that area right now."
Of the 438 new cases reported in Manitoba on Friday, 114 were in the Southern Health region, which includes Steinbach and Hanover. Roussin said 30 to 40 people in Steinbach test positive for COVID-19 each day.
Nine more deaths were announced, including a Winnipeg man in his 20s — the youngest Manitoban to die of COVID-19.
"All these announcements are much more than numbers. These are people; this is a young man. There were certainly some underlying conditions, but this is a tragedy to see all of these listings, every single day now," Roussin said."This was a son, a Manitoban, and we need to continue to be vigilant to try to stop days like these going forward."
Four of the deaths were being linked to outbreaks at personal care homes: a man in his 80s and a man in his 100s at St. Norbert care home (Winnipeg); a woman in her 60s at Kekinan Centre (Winnipeg); and a man in his 80s at the Gilbert Plains care home (Gilbert Plains).
The remaining five are: a man in his 20s from Winnipeg; a woman in her 50s from northern Manitoba; a man in his 60s from southern Manitoba; a woman in her 50s from Interlake-Eastern health region; and a Winnipeg woman in her 80s.
The Steinbach region has been an area of concern for some time, Roussin said, noting Southern Health was elevated to critical-red restrictions on Nov. 9 prior to the entire province being upgraded to code red on Nov. 12.
Widespread community transmission is behind the surge in cases in the Southern Health region, Roussin said. People are becoming infected at workplaces, from family members, and at gatherings, the doctor said, and the surge isn't specifically linked to the past weekend's anti-mask rally in Steinbach.
Health care providers in Steinbach have come under increased pressure as people who were fighting the disease at home or in the community began to arrive at the Bethesda Regional Health Centre because they needed care.
On Nov. 13, an untold number of people who had symptoms of COVID-19 went to the hospital in a short time period, forcing nurses to triage patients in their cars, and prompting the local health region to add capacity to the site and Shared Health to postpone non-urgent and elective surgeries.
The province said 71 residents of the Southern Health region were hospitalized with COVID-19, including 11 in intensive care, on Friday. Thirty-seven residents of the region have died due to COVID-19. The 27,000-square-kilometre health region has more than 204,000 people.
And on Friday, the rising transmission rates prompted the Hanover School Division to announce it will switch to teacher-led remote learning for students.
Starting Nov. 24, only the children of essential-service workers will be allowed at schools to be supervised during the day — and even then, will receive either virtual lessons or work packages from their classroom teacher, just like their peers at home.
Steinbach Tory MLA Kelvin Goertzen said his constituents have known for some time that the coronavirus situation in their community has been bad, and the latest numbers reinforce that.
Asked if he thinks his constituents are fearful, he said: "I don’t sense a fear but what I do sense is that people know that this is serious and that it needs to be taken seriously."
Later Friday, Goertzen announced on Facebook that his uncle had died of COVID-19. "My uncle Corny Martens passed away yesterday in Grunthal from COVID. Appreciate prayers for his family and sister (my Mom) at this hard time when traditional ways of grieving and gathering are so limited. COVID is impacting many families and all are in our thoughts as well," the post said.
NDP Leader Wab Kinew said the sky-high test positivity rates in southeastern Manitoba show the province must dramatically increase testing capacity in the area.
"The situation is out of control and we need to throw every health-care resource that we can muster there to help the people in the region," he said.
Goertzen said Health Minister Cameron Friesen is well aware of the strains on testing capacity in the Steinbach area.
"I believe he and his department are working up some options to get additional capacity for sure," he said.
On Parliament Hill, Canada’s chief public health officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, released modelling that projected a difficult month ahead for Manitoba.
Forecasting by the Public Health Agency of Canada suggests Manitoba is on track to record more than 600 new cases per day by mid-December, compared to roughly 400 new daily cases in recent weeks.
The agency would not provide specific data, but charts it released Friday showed Manitoba could even reach the 600-case threshold in as little as 10 days if the spread accelerated, while a decrease in social contacts could limit the spread to 400 new cases a day into January.
"I mention Manitoba just because they did just put in some amazing, more restricted measures. Now, of course, that takes a little bit of time for us to see whether it has an impact — and I expect that it will," said Tam, as she explained the modelling to reporters.
"If you looked at the European countries, we know how this virus is spread: through interactions. Once you start limiting them, I expect that we will see some of those curves beginning to bend," Tam said, reiterating that provinces need to have sufficient testing and tracing to ramp down restrictions.
"We can’t release the brakes rapidly unless we’re absolutely certain that other measures have been put in place."
And on Friday, Trudeau warned that if Canadians don’t take immediate action, the consequences may be felt for generations.
"This is the future of our country. It’s the future of our children. It’s the future of our loved ones and our seniors," Trudeau said. "It’s our economy, it’s our businesses, it’s everything altogether."
— with files from Katie May, Dylan Robertson, Maggie Macintosh and Larry Kusch
Danielle Da Silva
Danielle Da Silva is a general assignment reporter.