For the fourth time in as many weeks, the Manitoba government has introduced sweeping new rules in a desperate effort to get a handle on record-breaking COVID-19 numbers before they spiral out of control.
This time, the restrictions will apply to people in the northern part of the province, where there are increasing signs of community spread and cases among vulnerable populations, like those experiencing homelessness.
“We know that the north is already at risk for transmission of this virus, especially in remote, isolated communities, [with limited] access to health care,” Chief Provincial Public Health Officer Dr. Brent Roussin said at a news conference Thursday.
That prompted the decision to move the Northern Health region to the orange, or “restricted,” level on the province’s pandemic response system, effective Monday. The decision was made in consultation with municipal and First Nations leaders in the region, Roussin said.
The rules coming to northern Manitoba are the same as those already in place in the Winnipeg area, including a five-person cap on gatherings.
On top of that, casinos and other sites with live entertainment licences will have to close, many businesses will have to cut occupancy to 50 per cent, and a slew of other sites will have to keep patrons’ contact information for 21 days to support contact tracing.
Those measures came into effect in Winnipeg on Monday, after a looser set of restrictions introduced at the end of September, and rules aimed at restaurants and bars the following week, failed to slow the spread of the illness in the region.
The province also announced new measures Thursday for schools in both the Northern Health region and the Winnipeg area, in response to overall increases in community spread of COVID-19.
While many hoped cases would have dwindled a month out from Winnipeg’s move to the orange pandemic response level, the reality has been the opposite.
In recent weeks, the province has seen its worst COVID-19 numbers to date. That continued on Thursday, when Manitoba announced four more deaths linked to the illness and 42 hospitalizations — both new daily records. Eight of the people hospitalized are in intensive care.
The province also saw its second-highest one-day increase in cases, with 147 announced Thursday.
WATCH | Dr. Brent Roussin talks about community spread in Manitoba:
The Northern Health region (and the northern town of Churchill, which is technically part of the Winnipeg health region) will stay at the orange level for at least two weeks, Roussin said, as overall cases in the area are on the rise.
The region’s five-day test positivity rate — a rolling average of the COVID-19 tests that come back positive — is also climbing, and reached 4.6 per cent as of Thursday, Roussin said. In the province as a whole, that rate was 5.6 per cent as of Thursday — the highest it’s been in Manitoba.
Meanwhile, an outbreak was declared at the Ochekwi Sipi Cree Nation Personal Care Home on Fisher River Cree Nation after a health-care worker there tested positive for COVID-19. The facility in the Interlake community has been moved to the red, or critical, level on the pandemic response system.
Two of Manitoba’s latest COVID-19 deaths — men in their 70s and 80s — are linked to Winnipeg’s Parkview Place personal care home, which has become the deadliest care-home outbreak in the province, with 14 deaths as of Thursday, Roussin said.
The other two deaths were men in their 80s in the Winnipeg and Interlake-Eastern health regions.
School restrictions coming
Meanwhile, schools in both northern Manitoba and the Winnipeg area may see more remote learning starting Monday, as the province brings in more restrictions to slow the spread of COVID-19 in those settings.
The new restrictions come as a third Manitoba school has been elevated to the orange level in the pandemic response system because of the possibility COVID-19 is spreading within its walls. The outbreak at Arborgate School in La Broquerie, Man., now includes three people, Seine River School Division superintendent Mike Borgfjord said on Thursday.
The new rules include ensuring two-metre physical distancing as much as possible, adjusting classroom space as needed.
There’s also the possibility of offering temporary remote learning options for students from kindergarten to Grade 8.
All other public health measures will stay in effect, and blended in-class and online learning for high school students will continue.
87 cases in Winnipeg
Eighty-seven of the new cases announced in Manitoba on Thursday are in the Winnipeg health region, Roussin said. Another 33 are in the Southern Health region, while the Interlake-Eastern and Northern health regions each reported 10 new cases. There are seven new cases in the Prairie Mountain Health region.
The province is also dealing with outbreaks in several high-risk settings, including a poultry processing plant in Blumenort, Man., where an employee died after contracting COVID-19.
A COVID-19 outbreak at St. Boniface Hospital had closed two units as of Wednesday. Eleven patients and five staff at the Winnipeg hospital have had contracted the illness.
Meanwhile, another outbreak at Headingley Correctional Centre had spread to 29 inmates and three staff as of Wednesday.
The outbreak at the Bethesda Place personal care home in Steinbach, where several residents died after contracting COVID-19, has now been declared over.
There have now been 3,773 cases of COVID-19 identified in Manitoba. Of those, 1,920 people have recovered, 47 have died and 1,806 are considered active — though Roussin has previously said that number is skewed because of a data entry backlog.
Another 2,220 COVID-19 tests were completed in Manitoba on Wednesday, bringing the total done since early February to 233,222.
WATCH | Full news conference on COVID-19 | Oct. 22, 2020: