Northern Manitoba's months-long streak, dating back to early April, without any positive tests for the novel coronavirus came to an end Aug. 23 when Manitoba Public Health announced that a resident of Gillam had tested positive for the coronavirus.The virus was imported to the northeastern Manitoba town by a visitor, a resident of the Prairie Mountain health district, who had travelled north to see family Aug. 12-21, during which time they discovered that they were a close contact of a previously known case in the Prairie Mountain health region and later developed COVID-19 symptoms and tested positive for the virus.
The person who brought the virus to Gillam and infected a close contact, presumably a family member, didn’t break any rules or public health orders in travelling north to see family. The ban on non-essential travel into Northern Manitoba expired on June 26, and the person reportedly self-isolated as soon as they discovered that they had been in close contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19. But the incident does demonstrate exactly how easy it is for the novel coronavirus to reach a previously unaffected community and why contact tracing by Public Health is so important. If this visitor to Gillam hadn’t been informed that they had been exposed to the coronavirus, they might have spread it to other members of their family or other community members, and then those people could have spread it even further, possibly without realizing that they were even sick. One case can quickly grow into a cluster, as we’ve seen in Brandon and in the province as a whole. On July 16, there were six active cases of COVID-19 in all of Manitoba. On Aug, 25, there were 399.
The story of how the virus made its way to Gillam is a good reminder to Manitobans that the fact that something is allowed doesn’t mean it is without risk. Jut because you can travel to other parts of the province, or go to bars, or eat out in restaurants, doesn’t mean that you have to or that doing so is “safe.” Particularly now, with the active caseload in Manitoba higher than it ever has been since the start of the pandemic and the weekend having seen the two highest single-day case counts ever, it is important to remember that you need to take precautions, not only to avoid contracting the virus yourself, but to avoid passing it on to others if you have it and don’t know it, or if you acquire it. Wearing masks, keeping your distance from others, washing your hands frequently and avoiding crowded places, be they indoors or out, are some of the steps that each of us can take to reduce everyone’s risk of contracting COVID-19.
The story is also a reminder of how important it is that everyone – teachers, staff, students and parents – takes the responsibility to ensure they are symptoms-free seriously when classes start up again in September. It only takes one person to introduce the virus into a closed ecosystem like a school where it can spread rapidly and then, from there, out into the community and possibly into surrounding communities as well. Northern Manitoba has had tremendous luck in seeing so few positive tests for the virus so far, partly by discouraging visitors, partly just because of geography and low population density and partly just due to luck. But the fact that it has been that way is no guarantee that it will continue to be that way in the future. Practising the fundamentals of pandemic precautions – hand hygiene, social distancing, staying home when ill – is the best way to increase the chance that positive tests in the region won’t begin climbing too fast for the health care system to handle.