Northern Manitoba didn’t get any good pandemic news a week before Christmas, with 89 new cases of COVID-19 and an outbreak of the virus in the Thompson General Hospital announced.
The new cases in the north included at least 17 new cases in the Thompson/Mystery Lake health district, about 20 more confirmed cases in the Shamattawa/York Factory/Tataskweyak/Split Lake health district and at least 10 new cases in the Island Lake health district.
The Northern Regional Health Authority (NRHA) learned Dec. 17 of individuals from the medical/surgical/pediatric unit at Thompson General Hospital who had tested positive for COVID-19, said an NRHA spokesperson. Public health declared an outbreak in that unit and immediately began contact tracing and management of the cases.
“As a precaution, all patients on the unit will be tested,” the spokesperson said.
The unit is complying with all restrictions and guidelines in place under the red/critical level of the provincial Pandemic Response System.
The Pandemic Response System mandates in-patient visitation to hospitals being suspended when they are at the critical level, with exceptions made on a case-by-case basis for those receiving end of life care, those who are in labour and delivery, and pediatric patients.
"I am saddened and concerned to hear of the outbreak at Thompson General Hospital,” said Thompson NDP MLA Danielle Adams in an emailed statement Friday afternoon. “This facility is a northern hub for acute care which many surrounding communities and First Nations experiencing outbreaks are relying on to send their patients. Nurses and doctors at the hospital are already stretched thin, and the loss of staff to isolation will make it even harder to deliver care. The province should step in immediately to work with the regional health authority and ensure there are enough staff to see this hospital, and the patients it cares for, through this crisis."
The Island Lake and Shamattawa health districts both have over 200 active cases according to data posted on the provincial government’s online COVID-19 dashboard, but deputy chief provincial public health officer Dr. Jazz Atwal said the numbers are even higher, with 340 confirmed cases in Shamattawa, 143 active cases in Oxford House and 59 cases in Red Sucker Lake as of Dec. 17.
“These aren’t large communities,” said Atwal, noting that the six First Nations in Manitoba with the highest numbers of COVID-19 infections have 827 cases between them. “There’s a lot of communities with outbreaks in the north.”
The virus most likely got into remote northern communities via someone returning to them from Winnipeg, Atwal said.
NDP Indigenous relations critic Ian Bushie said in a Dec. 18 press release that the provincial government should be working with the NRHA to ensure isolated First Nations like Bunibonibee Cree Nation (BCN) at Oxford House have in-person access to physicians. The NDP said they have obtained a letter in which health officials rebuffed physicians’ offer to provide in-person and virtual care to BCN. The letter reportedly outlines the effect that the presence of COVID-19 is having on the community, with five to six patients medevaced out of the community daily and nurses struggling to connect with doctors in Thompson. The press release says the NRHA is only able to provide virtual physician care until they are advised to change to providing in-person care by the provincial government.
“We can’t fight COVID-19 outbreaks without health care workers,” said Bushie. “There are physicians, who care about these communities and want to help these families, that are offering to provide the support that is so desperately needed. Northern First Nations, like Bunibonibee Cree Nation, struggle to have continuous access to doctors even without a pandemic. It’s just one reason why communities were hit so hard by this virus and why First Nation families face poorer health outcomes. Every Manitoban deserves equitable access to quality health care. That means being able to see a doctor when they need to, in their home community. The Pallister government must act immediately to ensure northern families can get the physician care they deserve.”
There are now 820 active cases of COVID-19 in the north and there have been 1,748 cases since the pandemic began last spring, mostly within the last three months. There were 33 northerners in hospital due to COVID-19 as of Dec. 18, four of them in intensive care.
Across Manitoba, 350 new cases of the virus were announced Friday along with 10 deaths, bringing the total number of people who have died from the virus in the province to 547. There are 305 people in hospital due to COVID-19 as of Friday morning, 43 of them in intensive care. Those numbers only include patients who are still considered infectious but there are other patients who had COVID-19 and are still in hospital but are no longer in their infectious period.
The five-day COVID-19 test positivity rate in Manitoba is 13.6 per cent as of Dec. 18.