Up to 1/3 of new COVID-19 cases may be Omicron as Manitoba reports 400 cases, 2 deaths

Manitoba public health officials announced 400 new COVID-19 cases and two deaths on Wednesday.

That’s the highest daily total since May 28, when there were 493. And it has pushed the provincial five-day test positivity rate to 9.9 per cent, a level not seen since June.

That’s a significant jump from the 8.6 it was at on Tuesday.

Once again the Winnipeg health region has the majority of the latest cases, with 256.

The city’s five-day test positivity rate has skyrocketed to 10.6 per cent. It was 3.7 per cent nine days ago, and at the start of December it was 2.5 per cent.

The Prairie Mountain Health region has 54 of the latest cases, the Southern Health region has 51, the Interlake-Eastern health region has 31 and the Northern Health Region has eight.

The two deaths are a man in his 50s from the Winnipeg health region and a man in his 70s from the Southern Health region.

The total number of deaths in Manitoba since the pandemic started is now 1,368.

“Things are rapidly changing and evolving,” said Dr. Jazz Atwal, deputy chief provincial public health officer.

The latest counts most likely underrepresent the true number of coronavirus cases at the moment, some health experts say.

Demand for testing has drastically increased across the country, sparked by fears of the highly infectious Omicron variant.

That has caused long lines at test sites, prolonged waits for results and likely discouraged some people from even going. All of that makes it harder to get an exact picture of the true case counts.

Atwal estimated one-quarter to one-third of all new cases in Manitoba are now Omicron. That is a guess, though, and sequencing, which takes a few days, will ultimately tell the tale.

“But that proportion is increasing, for sure,” he said. “This will spread really quickly.”

Asked why public health isn’t further increasing the restrictions that went into place on Tuesday, Atwal said that remains a possibility.

“We have been discussing what else public health needs to do to help protect the acute care system. We’re having ongoing meetings about that,” he said.

“Things have changed quite dramatically, really quick, and we’re gathering that information to determine those next steps on what public health does recommend.”

Several provinces have tightened their restrictions to near lockdown levels in the past week.

If people want to avoid more restrictions, they need to limit their interactions and stem the spread of COVID-19, Atwal said.

“We need to create a smaller group of individuals that we interact with. The orders, what they allow, is sort of the maximum,” he said, as most transmission continues to be household in nature.

“Our behaviour should change.”

Despite long testing lineups, including lines of cars at drive-thru sites that are causing traffic snarls in Winnipeg, Atwal said testing capacity hasn’t been exceeded in Manitoba but it is “being pushed.”

There have been hours-long lineups at testing centres in Winnipeg and calls for the province to increase the number of testing sites or make rapid tests more widely available.

The Winnipeg Police Service posted on social media on Wednesday that it has been receiving calls about traffic congestion around testing sites. Police urge people to be patient and kind.

Testing locations and hours — which could change because of holidays — can be found online.

A spokesperson for the province told CBC News in an email on Tuesday it is working on a system to “greatly increase” the use of rapid testing.

Atwal on Wednesday echoed that, saying Manitoba is working on a strategy to roll out rapid tests, which is close to being finalized.

But the best defence against COVID-19, he said, is being fully vaccinated.

“No vaccine offers 100 per cent immunity, but studies show that serious outcomes, such as hospitalizations and deaths, are reduced if you are fully vaccinated and even better if you’ve had your third dose,” Atwal said.

A new outbreak has been declared at Beacon Hill Lodge, a long-term care home in Winnipeg. The facility has been moved to the red or critical level of the province’s pandemic response system.

Outbreaks have also been declared at the following schools, all in Winnipeg:

  • Westview School, Grade 1-2 cohort.
  • École Margaret Underhill, Grade 1 class.
  • Faith Academy Middle School.
  • École Regent Park, class 4B.

The identified classes have moved to remote learning and the schools have been moved to the orange or restricted level of the pandemic response system.

The province has announced it is delaying the return to school after the winter break to Jan. 10 to give public health officials more time to assess the effect of the Omicron variant.

Most students were scheduled to go back to class on Jan. 6.

An outbreak at Fernwood Place retirement home in Steinbach has been declared over.

(Government of Manitoba)

Asked if he expects to see the daily case numbers continue to climb, especially coming out of the holidays, Atwal was blunt and did not hesitate.

“Quite frankly, yes. Our numbers again have gone up 60 per cent in one week essentially on a seven-day rolling average, and I don’t see that plateauing. This is a stark increase,” he said.

While the current spike is heavily weighted toward Winnipeg, he doesn’t expect that to consistently be the case.

“I think with what’s going to happen, we’re going to see increases right across the board in all the regions,” he said.

“It’s going to be a challenging holidays here and I’m asking all Manitobans, limit those interactions. This virus loves interactions and this Omicron variant loves those interactions even more.

“I know this is not how we wanted to celebrate [the holidays] again, but please be kind and be safe.”

The seven-day average daily case count in Manitoba reached 281 on Wednesday, which is the highest running average since June 6, when it was 284. One week ago it was 178.

As of midnight, there were 87 patients in intensive care units around the province. That number includes patients receiving both COVID and non-COVID care. The critical care program’s normal, pre-COVID baseline capacity was 72 patients.

Of the 400 cases reported Wednesday, 72 (18 per cent) are in people who were not vaccinated against COVID-19 and 19 (five per cent) are in people who were partly vaccinated. The other 309 (77 per cent) are in fully vaccinated people.

However, when it comes to severity of symptoms, the caseload shifts toward those who are unvaccinated.

Among people hospitalized with active COVID-19, 51 per cent are unvaccinated and 45 per cent are fully vaccinated.

And of the patients being treated for active COVID-19 in intensive care, 83 per cent are unvaccinated, six per cent are partly vaccinated and 11 per cent are fully vaccinated.

(Government of Manitoba)

As of Wednesday, 84.6 per cent of eligible Manitobans have received one dose of a coronavirus vaccine, 78.2 per cent have two doses and 16.8 per cent have a third shot, the provincial vaccine dashboard says.

Eligibility for first and second doses now includes anyone age five or older. Anyone 18 or older is eligible for a third dose, if at least six months have passed since the second dose.

That wait is reduced to five months for those 60 and older and anyone 18 and older who lives on a First Nation.

The total number of doses administered in the province is now at 2,378,890 with 7,601 shots scheduled to be given on Wednesday.

Dr. Joss Reimer, medical lead of the province’s COVID-19 vaccine implementation task force, said there is ample vaccine supply, but the challenge is getting enough people to administer them. The province is asking medical students who are on Christmas break to work as immunizers during their holiday.

Additionally, more vaccine shipments started being delivered on Wednesday to pharmacies and clinics around the province, so some locations that ran out of supply should be restocked soon, Reimer said.

Recent studies are showing signs of vaccine protection from Omicron, she said. One study of the Moderna vaccine has produced preliminary evidence that a third dose significantly increased Omicron-neutralizing antibodies.

People tested a month after getting their third dose had a nearly 40-fold increase in those antibodies, which could recognize Omicron, Reimer said.

“This is very hopeful. However, new research needs to be taken cautiously, and we look forward to seeing more studies,” she said.

We are still months away from an Omicron-specific vaccine, Reimer said.

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