After months with few or no positive tests for COVID-19, Northern Manitoba has seen a significant upswing lately, with 17 cases in Thompson since the start of October and the number of northern cases increasing from 18 to 45 over a two-week period Oct. 5-19.
Despite that, Northern Regional Health Authority (NRHA) medical officer of health Dr. Michael Isaac says that people need to keep the virus in perspective.
“Many people will recover from COVID without ever needing to go to hospital and certainly we [in Manitoba] have very few deaths,” Isaac said Oct. 16. “If we look at all of the cases that we’ve had in Manitoba so far, approximately one per cent of people [who test positive] would die from COVID, one per cent of people would need an … intensive care unit admission, a further four per cent of people would have a hospitalization but then be discharged home. After accounting for all of those individuals, about 94 per cent of people would recover from COVID at home. Many people do very well after having COVID and I think it’s important to have that message out there.”
However, by practising good hygiene, maintaining physical distancing from people outside their household and limiting the number of people they come in contact with, northern residents can not only protect themselves but also others who are more at risk of severe outcomes, like people with compromised immune systems, heart conditions, high blood pressure and lung conditions, as well as anyone over 65 years of age, the cohort that contains most of the 42 Manitobans who have died so fat from COVID-19.
“Those sorts of conditions can make individuals more susceptible as well sometimes even at younger ages,” says Isaac.
Though the complete list of COVID-19 symptoms is long and includes a cough, fever, runny nose, muscle aches or chills, headache and loss of sense of taste or smell, many people may only experience one of those symptoms or not experience them all that same time. Even if your symptoms are mild, however, it is important to self-isolate and then seek testing.
“Ideally we’re having people tested … about 24 hours after symptoms start and have them isolate for that whole period until they get their test results back,” Isaac says. “That makes our job a whole lot easier in public health because then when we go to ask who may have you been in contact with it’s a fewer number of people. If you’ve got mild symptoms and you continue to go out in the community and gather with friends and family and don’t get tested until six or seven days after your symptoms start, by the time we get your positive results we can be sometimes 10 to 14 days behind in terms of trying to find people that you may have been in contact with and then isolate them. That lag time really does make a difference for us.”
Contact tracing divides people into three categories: close contacts, medium-risk contact and low-risk contacts. The first group includes anyone who spent 15 minutes or more within six feet of a person who has tested positive for the virus. Medium-risk contacts are those who were not that close to or in the company of an infected person for a shorter period of time.
Close contacts are expected to self-isolate themselves and get tested if they develop COVID-19 symptoms.
“We would also help to facilitate testing somewhere around day five to seven of their last exposure even if they’re asymptomatic,” Isaac says.
Medium-risk contacts are asked to self-monitor themselves, including taking their temperature twice a day, for two weeks, while low-risk contacts do not have to take any special precautions beyond those everybody is asked to take because they aren’t at any greater risk of infection than the general public.
With flu season on the horizon, Isaac says everyone who can is encouraged to get the flu vaccine.
“It would be possible to have both influenza and COVID at the same,” Isaac says, though many parts of the world that have already had their flu season saw lower numbers than usual this year, perhaps because of COVID pandemic precautions.
Because COVID-19 is easily transmitted and people who haven’t been infected have no immunity to it, preventing all infections isn’t a reasonable goal.
“It’s going to be impossible not to have any cases of COVID,” Isaac says. “We want to try and keep the numbers low. We want to be able to not overwhelm our healthcare system. We want to not try and overwhelm our public health system so it’s important that we try as much as possible to contain the virus.”
Taking steps to avoid infection is recommended; panicking about COVID-19 is not.
“I think one of the best ways to put it was, a First Nations leader, Chief Glenn Hudson down in Peguis, his messaging to the community was that we need to respect COVID but not fear COVID and I think it’s a really apt description. It’s something to be respected. We each have our part to play and our part to do but sometimes fear can lead to some negative outcomes or stigma and again we want to try and avoid that.”