Manitoba COVID-19 numbers fill doctor with ‘sense of dread’

Manitoba health researchers say they fear the province is poised to face a third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic that is as bad or worse than the second — unless drastic measures are taken to curb the spread of the virus. 

Dr. Gigi Osler, an ear, throat and nose surgeon at St. Boniface Hospital, looked at the current rate of reproduction of the novel coronavirus and compared it to what was around the time the province went into lockdown last fall.

“That’s when I started to get this sense of dread, of what could be coming,” said Osler, who is a past president of the Canadian Medical Association. 

According to biostatistician Ryan Imgrund, who reports daily COVID-19 reproduction numbers across Canada, Manitoba’s reproduction number on Saturday was 1.35 — meaning that every person infected with COVID-19 could infect 1.35 people.

That’s almost exactly the same as on Oct. 12, when it was 1.34 — one day after Thanksgiving, ahead of the deadliest surge of the pandemic.

As the variant-driven third wave of the pandemic pushes daily case numbers to record highs in provinces like Ontario, Osler says Manitoba needs to hold off on any loosening of public health restrictions.

“I think we’ve got a really short time before the variants really take hold, and I’m hoping we don’t find ourselves in the same situation” as Ontario, she said.

Daily case numbers rising

Manitoba’s reproduction number is just one COVID-19 statistic causing concern for health researchers. 

Epidemiologist Cynthia Carr has tracked average daily case numbers since last summer. In early March, Manitoba was averaging around 57 cases per day. Now, just six weeks later, that number is up to around 135 cases per day.

“And you know that that number, 135 new cases on average that day, that’s pretty close to where we were around the third week of October,” she said.

Although some people might think the recent increase in case numbers isn’t as bad as in November and December of last year, “the rate that we’re at today [is] actually alarmingly high,” said Carr.

“So we have to keep that in mind, that it’s all about perspective and how quickly, now as well with the variants of concern, this number can go up again.”

A new analysis by Ontario’s COVID-19 Science Advisory Table looked at hospitalizations and deaths there between December and March.

It found that the new variants are 40 to 50 per cent more transmissible, with an increased risk of death of about 50 per cent. They also found a doubled risk of ICU admission, with 60 per cent increased hospital admission.

Dr. Peter Juni, an epidemiologist and scientific director of Ontario’s COVID-19 Science Advisory Table, says Manitoba is in a similar situation as Ontario back in January, when doctors warned that the pandemic could get out of control again ahead of the provincial government loosening public health restrictions.

“The problem is people don’t really see it coming. Even so, all the data are very clear, and you guys now really need to be careful where you are. We were there just a few weeks ago, and you see what happened,” he said.

Osler urged public health officials to increase public health restrictions, and for people to remain patient.

She wants to see a greater “sense of urgency” to Manitoba’s vaccine rollout, more vaccination sites open for longer hours, and drive-thru vaccination clinics like in Saskatchewan.

“My message is just please hold tight, keep following public health orders while we get more vaccines into arms,” she said.