Manitoba health officials say every person in the province will likely be exposed to the virus that causes COVID-19 sometime in the coming weeks, and the government will shift its focus away from trying to limit the spread of the disease.
“COVID-19 is no longer an emerging illness,” said Dr. Jazz Atwal, deputy chief provincial public health officer.
“It is here to stay, and our ability to contain the virus is limited. It is highly likely that everyone will be exposed to the virus in the coming weeks.”
Instead of focusing on individual cases, public health officials will work to manage risk at the community level, Atwal said at a news conference on Wednesday afternoon, alongside Premier Heather Stefanson, Health Minister Audrey Gordon and Dr. Joss Reimer, medical lead of the province’s vaccine task force.
With the arrival of the Omicron variant, the coronavirus has become much more infectious, with a shorter incubation period, making it much harder to contain, Atwal said.
“This is behaving almost like an entirely different virus,” he said. “We would not have been able to contain this virus.”
The Omicron variant has become the dominant strain of the coronavirus in all health regions in Manitoba, Atwal said.
Province will monitor ‘system load’
Instead of focusing on new case numbers, the province will instead monitor “system load,” Gordon said.
Atwal said one-third of all COVID-19 cases in hospitals right now were admitted specifically because of the disease. The other cases involve people receiving treatment for other conditions but who later tested positive for COVID-19.
Health officials determined the one-third figure by conducting a manual review of all patient charts at one Manitoba facility and looking specifically at the reason for admission, Atwal said.
The premier said the province needs to take a more “balanced” approach to the way it deals with the virus.
“We’re going to need to learn to live with this in the longer term. COVID is here to stay,” Stefanson said.
When asked by reporters whether public health officials recommended more stringent measures, Atwal said they “provide recommendations to government, and I think anything further would have to come from government.”
Responding to the same line of questioning, Stefanson said too much responsibility had been laid at the feet of public health officials, and she has been reaching out to other groups, including business leaders and pediatricians.
“At the end of the day, we’ll take advice from public health, but we will be taking advice from other Manitobans as well moving forward.”
Stefanson has come under fire for seldom addressing the public about the pandemic, with social media hashtags such as #Wheresheather and #wheresthepremier popping up.
The criticism grew louder this week after 19 more deaths were reported on Monday, with no response from the premier.
Province re-emphasizing vaccinations
As it moves away from efforts to stop the spread of the virus, the province is re-emphasizing the importance of getting vaccinated as the best means of protecting against the worst effects of COVID-19.
The province has launched a campaign aimed at encouraging eligible Manitobans to get their COVID-19 booster shot, dubbed “Recharge Your Immunity.”
Stefanson was questioned Wednesday about whether the government was asking Manitobans to shift their expectations of the province’s efforts in the fight against COVID-19.
“What we’re asking Manitobans to do is to ensure that they get vaccinated … that they mitigate their own risk out there to not contract this virus,” she said.
Uzoma Asagwara, health critic for the Opposition NDP, said the government appeared to be “throwing in the towel.”
“Manitobans may need to learn to live with the virus, but we should never learn to live with a government that is failing us,” she said.
“If we are going through a period where everyone in the province is going to be exposed to the virus, you would expect that the government would announce strong measures to shore up our health-care system.”
COVID-19 hospitalizations in Manitoba reached a new high of 454 Wednesday, with 36 more people being admitted to hospitals, including three more in intensive care.
The province also reported 1,478 new cases of COVID-19, with the majority of those, 816, in the Winnipeg health region. However, reported case counts significantly undercount the true number of cases in the province, since positive results from rapid tests are not included in that number.
As of Wednesday, 102 patients were in Manitoba’s intensive care units, including both patients with COVID-19 and those receiving treatment for other issues, a Shared Health spokesperson said in an email to CBC News.
Manitoba’s pre-pandemic baseline ICU capacity was 72.