Manitoba’s reporting of COVID-19 cases by health region matches the practice in most other provinces

Northern Manitoba MP and NCN chief among those who suggest more precise location data would be helpful in a region as vast as the north

While many Northern Manitobans are asking for the provincial government to be more specific about the precise location of positive COVID-19 tests in the Northern Regional Health Authority (NRHA) area, it appears that most provinces and territories in Canada do not provide greater detail about the location of cases than Manitoba’s chief public health officer does.

As of 9:30 a.m., there were 217 probable and confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus in Manitoba, 169 of them in the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority (WRHA) area. Those account for about 78 per cent of all COVID-19 cases in the province.

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The southern health region has the second-most cases, with 23 (10.5 per cent) while the Interlake-Eastern and Prairie Mountain health regions each have 11 cases (five per cent each) and the NRHA has three cases (less than 1.5 per cent of the total).

From the time the first COVID-19 testing site in the north opened March 16 to April 2, 162 northern residents were tested for the virus at testing sites in Thompson, Flin Flon and The Pas. That represented about 1.35 per cent of the tests conducted in Manitoba up to that point, consistent with the percentage of NRHA coronavirus cases out of Manitoba’s total cases as well as the percentage of all the tests conducted in Manitoba up to April 6 that came back positive, which is about 1.5 per cent. Manitoba’s 217 cases represent about 1.3 per cent of the Canadian total of 17,076 as of April 7. Approximately 3.5 per cent of Canada’s population lives in Manitoba.

Northern testing ramped up in the seven days leading up to and including April 2, with 107 of the 162 tests in the region having been conducted over that period.

According to the NRHA, about 74,000 people live in the area where it delivers health services, approximately five per cent of Manitoba’s total estimated 2020 population of 1,377,517 people.

Northern Manitobans no longer need to have a recent travel history or other risk factors for contracting COVID-19 to get tested if they have symptoms, though they are advised to stay at home and not get tested if the possible coronavirus symptoms they are experiencing are mild. 

Given that the NRHA covers nearly 400,000 square kilometres, there have been calls for the province to identify which communities the positive samples came from, but chief provincial public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin disputes the value of such information.

“We know the virus is in all health regions,” he said at an April 7 news conference. “You cannot assume the virus isn’t in your community. You should assume the virus is in your community.”

The only community in the north where a positive COVID-19 test is known to have come from is Flin Flon. That knowledge was publicized by a family member of the first person to test positive in the north in a Facebook post.

Churchill-Keewatinook Aski NDP MP Niki Ashton posted about that positive test on social media before it had been announced by the province’s public health department, as did Flin Flon MLA Tom Lindsey. The person from the Flin Flon area who tested positive is believed to have contracted the virus through travel in early March.

Ashton told the Thompson Citizen April 6 that she thinks more details should be provided about where the positive tests in the north were conducted.

“We should simply have our provinces state where the cases are. It’s important to know whether it was international travel or community transmission and we need to be told that the contact tracing has been done or is in the process of being done so that people have a sense of what they’re dealing with in their own community or their own region.”

That sentiment was echoed by Nisichawayasihk Cree Nation (NCN) Chief Marcel Moody in COVID-19 bulletin posted online April 7, noting that a previous bulletin of his had mistakenly identified the second positive case in the NRHA as having been in Thompson, based on information he had received that may have been the result of a misunderstanding.

“This experience indicates to me that we need better, more specific information including location,” Moody wrote. “The north is a very large place and it is only by having better information that we can make informed decisions and not cause more fear and anxiety in communities like ours. Even knowing if there is community spread near our major northern centres would help all of us plan. My council and I are required to make multiple decisions each day to respond to the challenges this pandemic has caused and we need as much factual information as possible.”

NRHA CEO Helga Bryant does not agree, according to a letter she sent to Ashton, asking the MP to be mindful of the information she posts on social media

“It is very important that we all do our part to encourage people to follow the instructions of officials, work to promote calm behaviour and avoid needlessly inciting fear and panic. It is also extremely important to share credible information,” Bryant’s letter reads, according to the Flin Flon Reminder. “We have noted situations where information you have posted has resulted in a flurry of worry, bordering on panic, from our residents. In addition, we have seen interactions both in person and over the phone where our staff are being yelled at and threatened by people demanding to be tested for COVID-19 who clearly do not meet the provincial screening criteria. You are jeopardizing the very healthcare workers you have repeatedly thanked for their service and we need your cooperation to make it stop. I encourage and urge you to remove any posts that on reflection could be seen as non-helpful. I also encourage you to reach out to me if you have specific concerns or situations. I will do my best to share as much information as I can, while following provincial legislation.”

The letter, sent to Ashton’s parliamentary email, was copied to NRHA board chair Cal Huntley and federal NDP leader Jagmeet Singh, the Reminder said.

Based on a survey of provincial and territorial coronavirus updates online, reporting cases by health region is the general practice in Canada. In B.C., Alberta, Saskatchewan and Quebec, the number of positive COVID-19 tests is reported by region. In Ontario it is by public health unit, in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick it is by zone and in Prince Edward Island reports are given by county. Newfoundland and Labrador also reports the number of cases by regional health authority, though they are further broken down into the primary health care areas within each region. Yukon, Northwest Territories and Nunavut, the last of which does not yet have a positive case of COVID-19, provide the number of cases on a territorial basis, without a further breakdown.

As of the beginning of April, Manitoba was in the middle of the Canadian pack in terms of the percentage of residents it had tested for the coronavirus, which was approximately 0.8 per cent of the total population. The three provinces to the west had tested higher percentages than Manitoba, with Alberta the highest at 1.3 per cent, while Yukon and Northwest Territories had tested 1.7 per cent and 2.5 per cent of their residents, respectively. Nova Scotia and Quebec had had tested same percentage of residents as Manitoba, while Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Labrador,  and Ontario had tested lower percentages. Ontario, which had more than 4,700 COVID-19 cases on April 7, second only to Quebec with 8,580, had tested the lowest percentage of its residents at 0.45 per cent.

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