Broad shutdowns coming to Winnipeg after doctors call for action amid record COVID-19 numbers

Health officials are moving forward with a suite of new restrictions in Winnipeg and the surrounding area come Monday following calls for more strict rules from doctors in the province.

Manitoba’s Chief Provincial Public Health Officer Dr. Brent Roussin announced a record 480 cases Friday, though he clarified the number is inflated due to a backlog of data over the past several days. Despite that, he said the majority of the cases were identified in the past two days.

New records were set for test positivity rates in Manitoba (8.6 per cent) and Winnipeg (9.7 per cent). There are now  serious concerns about strain on the health-care system with 104 people in hospital due to COVID-19, up from 193 one day earlier. Nineteen of those patients are in intensive care, officials said, and Manitoba’s current ICU capacity is at 96 per cent.

Winnipeg has been moved to “red” or critical in the provincial pandemic response plan, and the restrictions will remain in place for a minimum of two weeks, said Roussin. The rest of the province will also see heightened restrictions as all other areas have been elevated to “orange” in the pandemic response system, which is one level below red.

The announcement comes hours after a letter addressed to the premier and health minister published by the Winnipeg Free Press on Friday, the doctors said they feel duty bound to express their concerns about where things are heading.

Letter from doctors stressed need for mass closures

“We’re well past the stage where even a robust community response will significantly slow the epidemic. Fortunately, your government has already shown us what needs to be done,” the letter said.

The letter stressed a need for mass closures like those implemented in Manitoba and elsewhere when COVID-19 emerged in the spring.

Before the news of the 480 cases was announced Friday, the doctors warned that once Manitoba hit more than 200 daily cases, COVID-19 “will overwhelm resources” in a span of one or two weeks.

“We cannot allow this epidemic to progress unchecked,” they wrote. 

Manitoba has recently repeatedly broken records for test positivity, daily cases, hospitalizations and intensive care unit admissions.

Dr. Philippe Lagacé-Wiens said this week that people need to drastically reduce the number of contacts they have in order to bring down the spike in COVID-19 cases. (Philippe Lagace-Wiens/Facebook)

Two of the doctors who signed the letter have expressed concerns to CBC News this week — Dr. Anand Kumar, an infectious disease expert and intensive care unit physician at Health Sciences Centre, and Dr. Philippe Lagacé-Wiens, a medical microbiologist and physician at St. Boniface Hospital.

The 12 doctors said the springtime lockdown effectively “crushed the progress of infection within weeks” because of widespread collaboration among communities and government.

Manitobans “bore tremendous hardship” due to that lockdown to protect the vulnerable, but the doctors said lifting restrictions let the virus back in.

Targeted approach no longer working

The doctors said the same sacrifice is warranted again because evidence suggests the spread is in the early stages of exponential growth.

They pointed to El Paso, Texas — a community with roughly the same population as Winnipeg — as an example of why the current incremental targeted approach, or escalation strategy, won’t get things under control in Manitoba.

The targeted approach has involved ramping up restrictions in hot spots, then gradually phasing them out as conditions improve.

El Paso had daily case counts between 150 and 200 as of Oct. 1, but by mid-month those counts ballooned to between 350 and 550 per day, the doctors said. By Thursday of this week the Texas city had registered 1,100 cases in one day, more than 900 people were in hospital, over 220 were in ICUs and 111 were being ventilated.

“We simply don’t have that kind of capacity, even with emergency measures,” the doctors warned, saying the targeted incremental approach won’t work in Manitoba anymore.

“This incremental approach [is] not suited for epidemics involving a rapidly progressive and dangerous infection such as the COVID-19 virus. And it will fail,” the letter said.

“By the time definitive evidence of failure of the incremental targeted approach to stop epidemic progression is apparent, it’s too late. You are two or three weeks behind. A targeted intervention we start today might work if that intervention had an immediate impact. It does not. The number of infections we are seeing now was determined by our interventions (or lack of them) several weeks ago.”

Manitoba’s intensive care bed capacity is “dwindling,” Shared Health’s chief nursing officer said Wednesday. She repeated the message again Friday. St. Boniface Hospital, where there’s an outbreak, officially ran out of ICU beds Thursday.

Manitoba Health Minister Cameron Friesen said Thursday the current approach isn’t working, and he hinted more restrictions would be coming soon. 

‘My grandma … I think of her’

The doctors who signed the letter aren’t the only ones speaking out.

“This has me quite afraid,” Dr. Joanna MacLean told CBC Information Radio host Marcy Markusa on Friday morning.

“I’m worried that the stresses that are being placed on the health-care system might get overwhelming.”

MacLean, a resident in emergency medicine at the U of M, is also worried about the long-term effects on the community at large, her loved ones and herself. 

The people most severely impacted by COVID-19 include those above the age of 65, though Manitobans age 20 to 40 make up the bulk of cases.

A millennial herself, MacLean cautions her generation to not be complacent. She sympathizes with people experiencing COVID-19 “fatigue” but implores everyone to think of the people in their lives who are most vulnerable right now.

“For me that’s my grandma … I think of her,” she said.

“I am going to stay home as much as I can, I am not going to work if I feel unwell, I am going to wash my hands all the time, I am always going to wear my mask when I am out in a public space. If we can really focus on those fundamentals and do them with love and a community spirit in mind I really think that we can flatten the curve.”

The following doctors signed the letter:

  • Anand Kumar.
  • Dan Roberts.
  • R. Bruce Light.
  • Eric Jacobsohn.
  • Steven Kowalski.
  • Allan Ronald.
  • Greg Hammond.
  • Fred Aoki.
  • Philippe Lagacé-Wiens.
  • Terry Wuerz.
  • Shelly Zubert.
  • Faisal Siddiqui.