Manitoba could see 3rd wave of COVID-19, experts say, as cases surge in other provinces

Dr. Philippe Lagacé-Wiens would like to be proven wrong. 

But the medical microbiologist and physician at St. Boniface Hospital can’t help but think  Manitoba will likely see another resurgence of COVID-19 cases — the start of a third wave — in the coming weeks. 

The evidence, he said, is what’s happening all around us.

“We’re seeing really rapid expansion of B117 variant in Saskatchewan, which is right next door,” said Lagacé-Wiens. “They’re definitely in a third wave, or at least starting their third wave in Ontario.”

This week alone, British Columbia, Ontario, Saskatchewan and Quebec all announced new tighter restrictions to try to curb the growing number of new COVID-19 cases, which have been largely driven by the more infectious coronavirus variants of concern.  

Dr. Philippe Lagacé-Wiens is a medical microbiologist and physician at St. Boniface Hospital (Submitted by Philippe R. S. Lagacé-Wiens)

Lagacé-Wiens said the fact younger people are still not eligible to be vaccinated, coupled with more transmissible variants, will likely play a role in a rise in cases in Manitoba. 

“Based on the evidence that I’m seeing, I think it will probably be driven by younger people … because the older people are starting to get immunized, so we’re not going to see as much disease in that population.”

That’s one of the reasons he doesn’t expect the next wave to be as severe as what we’ve seen in the past. 

“So because those who are at the highest risk of dying will hopefully have been immunized … the number of deaths is going to go down,” he said. “The hospitalizations I’m hoping will also be impacted because … the individuals who tend to be hospitalized are those most vulnerable that are now getting vaccinated.”

Jason Kindrachuk, an assistant professor and Canada research chair in emerging viruses at the University of Manitoba, said Manitobans should heed the warning from other provinces. 

“We’ve seen in real time how quickly those situations have really kind of deteriorated,” said Kindrachuk. 

And how quickly, he said, the B117 variant can gain steam in a community. 

“What we’re looking at is, you know, now something that’s manoeuvring through our population much faster than it did before and of course again we’re seeing younger age groups now that are ending up in hospital,” said Kindrachuk.  

Jason Kindrachuk is an assistant professor and Canada research chair in emerging viruses at the University of Manitoba (Jaison Empson/CBC)

As of Thursday, 235 of the 270 variants of concern reported by Manitoba health officials are B117, the variant first identified in the United Kingdom. Another 15 cases had yet to be classified.  

The province said 24.1 per cent of the variants of concern so far identified in Manitoba are linked to community spread, which means it’s not known how a person became infected.

“The variants are there, they’ve been increasing slowly,” he said. “But is there anything that’s going to kind of stop and pivot that next step from moving in the exponential growth phase.… Vaccination certainly has helped with protecting high risk groups, but we haven’t been able to, I think, vaccinate broadly enough to be able to curb transmission.”

When asked if Manitoba can avoid a third wave, he said it’s not impossible. 

“I do think that it’s somewhat improbable.”

Still he points to things Manitobans can do at the individual level to limit transmission such as meeting people outside, maintaining physical distancing and wearing masks. 

Carlos Farkas, a postdoctoral reseracher at the University of Manitoba, led the research team examining geographical variations in the genetic sequence of the virus that causes COVID-19. (Submitted by Carlos Farkas)

Carlos Farkas, a University of Manitoba post-doctoral researcher studying coronavirus variants, said the extent of how variants are evolving or the impacts on health are still be learned.   

“Viruses constantly change,” said Farkas. 

He said leaving restrictions in place, along with following public health measures like physical distancing, masking and hand hygiene can help Manitoba avoid a third wave, while vaccine efforts ramp up. He said contact tracing is also key. 

“Be cautious with the virus,” he said. “Because we don’t have the levels of the vaccine that we need to relax measures.”  

Lagacé-Wiens said lower case counts in recent days have been reassuring and he will be watching what happens closely.

For him, case numbers and test positivity rates creeping up consistently will signal a third wave could be coming.  

“The first hint to me is when you start to see that inflection of cases, so that slight increase or trend toward increasing numbers of cases as well as increasing per cent positivity,” he said. 

His advice to Manitobans right now is to avoid gatherings, particularly inside. 

He said it’s always safer to meet those who aren’t in your household bubble outside and maintain physical distancing when you do.

And he said just because current public health measures allow you to do something it doesn’t mean you should. 

“Repeatedly seeing the same 10 people outdoors is one thing. Repeatedly seeing 10 different people every day is very different.”