Manitoba’s top doctor is concerned about the rate of transmission of COVID-19 in the Southern Health Region — which is more than double the provincial average — and its implications for the rest of the fourth wave.
The latest data from Health Canada shows the health region has 68 cases per 100,000 as of Sunday, compared to just 13 per 100,000 people in the Winnipeg health region — a fivefold difference.
Chief Provincial Public Health Officer Dr. Brent Roussin says there are a number of concerning trends in the health region, including lower testing rates, low vaccine uptake and, as a result, higher test numbers and hospitalization rates.
The region makes up roughly half of new COVID-19 cases, but is only home to just over 15 per cent of the population, he says.
Particularly worrisome in the health region is that more than half of the people who are admitted to intensive care units receive their first COVID-19 test in hospital, suggesting they’ve unknowingly spread the virus to others, Roussin said in an online news conference on Monday.
“There’s people who are delaying being tested, are out in community while very ill and not being diagnosed until being admitted when they’re severely ill. A lot of concerns about what’s happening throughout Manitoba, but certainly we see significant transmission in the Southern Health Region right now,” he said.
“There’s a number of things that tell me that transmission has been increasing and will continue to increase.”
In the last seven days, Winnipeg — which has a much higher percentage of Manitoba’s population — saw 98 new cases reported, while the Southern Health Region saw 157.
This trend of disproportionately more cases is ongoing, provincial data suggests.
The province’s latest epidemiology report, covering the period of Sept. 11-18, says that of the 389 COVID-19 cases reported that week, 36 per cent were in the Southern Health region, while 29 per cent were in the Winnipeg health region.
The week prior, Southern Health made up 37 per cent of cases reported in the time period, with the Winnipeg area accounting for 35 per cent.
Not only are cases higher in that region, despite the lower testing rate, but vaccination uptake is the lowest in the Southern Health Region as well.
As of Monday, 65.6 per cent of eligible people living in that region have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, compared to the Winnipeg health region where more than 87 per cent of people who are over 12 have been vaccinated, the province’s immunization dashboard says.
The Southern Health districts of Stanley (24 per cent) and Winkler (41.3 per cent) have among the lowest rates in the province.
The latest Canadian data released earlier this month shows that from late July to late August — while the more-contagious delta variant was circulating widely — unvaccinated people were 36 times more likely to be hospitalized for COVID-19 than those who were fully vaccinated.
Of the 77 patients in hospital with the virus that causes COVID-19 across the province, 25 are from the Southern Health region, while seven of the 19 people receiving critical care are from the south.
Among the Manitobans hospitalized who are still contagious, 67 per cent were unvaccinated and 16 per cent were only partly vaccinated.
Of the active cases in ICU, 86 per cent are unvaccinated and 14 per cent are partly vaccinated.
That’s especially concerning to Roussin, as he looks to the example of neighbours to the west, where more cases means more people are hospitalized.
“We need to diminish transmission chains. And because we’re seeing people getting sick, we’re seeing people getting to ICU, we’re seeing our numbers climb once again,” he said.
‘Anger and resentment’ in Winkler
Some community members in the health region are worried transmission of the virus and animosity over public health orders will continue.
Recently, the Winkler, Man. police chief took to Facebook to call for an end to the anger and resentment over pandemic restrictions aimed at keeping case numbers and hospitalizations down.
“This great community did not become great by acting the way we currently are,” Chief Ryan Hunt wrote.
Hunt took aim at residents who say they’ll interfere with officials trying to enforce the rules, which range from mask mandates to vaccination cards, adding in dismay that “drug traffickers and career criminals are more respectful to law enforcement” than people who decide not to wear a mask.
He wrote that the best way to get through the pandemic is by following public health orders and recommendations from officials who are backed by science.
“I am vaccinated and I encourage everyone to be so that we can get through this sooner than later.”