Southern discomfort poses early test for new premier, as COVID cases in Manitoba region mount

When Heather Stefanson campaigned to become Manitoba’s premier, she told Progressive Conservative Party members that she was the only contender with enough experience in this government to dive straight into the job.

For better or for worse, she has the chance to prove that immediately.

There is no shortage of challenges facing the new premier, from an economic recovery threatened by a labour shortage to a University of Manitoba strike to a coming winter where the province’s rivers may not have enough water to make any money off electricity exports.

And the pandemic has stormed back in Southern Health to the point where the COVID-19 infection rate is near the third-wave peak in that region — while the rest of Manitoba is either containing the fourth wave or never really had one.

There is no nice way to say it: COVID cases are spreading so quickly in Southern Health, the entire province could pay the price in weeks if the rate of growth is not somehow controlled.

The numbers speak for themselves. Southern Health, which has 15 per cent of Manitoba’s population, was responsible for 34 per cent of the active COVID-19 cases in the province as of Friday.

People from Southern Health make up 42 per cent of COVID-19 patients in hospital and 58 per cent of the patients in intensive care.

Six out of the nine most recent COVID-19 deaths disclosed by the province were Southern Health residents.

14.5% test positivity rate

Community spread is also the highest in the region. The five-day test positivity rate in Southern Health reported Friday was 14.5 per cent — more than seven times Winnipeg’s.

Thanks primarily to Southern Health, Manitoba’s running average daily number of COVID cases is growing by about 16 per cent a week. The average daily case count now stands at 126 — up from 89 two weeks earlier — and more COVID-19 patients are now being admitted to Manitoba hospitals than leaving them.

The prospect of yet another hospital crunch is enough for some Winnipeggers to call on leaders to build a wall around the city’s southern flank and make Steinbach or Winkler pay for it. But that’s not practical, even as a rhetorical statement.

Southern Manitoba as a whole, including Winnipeg, is too interconnected to keep people apart.

The disparate pandemic situation demands a more subtle policy response.

On Wednesday, the province’s deputy chief public health officer said education must play a role in convincing more Southern Health residents to adhere to public health measures, or even decide to get the COVID vaccine shots.

It’s unclear, however, why messaging would suddenly work now when it hasn’t over the previous 20 months.

“We are monitoring the situation in Southern Health,” said Dr. Jazz Atwal, suggesting Manitoba Public Health is also considering new measures of some form.

“We’re looking at where we anticipate cases to be over the next one to six weeks time and also where hospitalizations and acute-care capacity requirements will be over that time,” he said.

The province is taking in a lot of information, he said, and will look at “what else we can do from a public health perspective in those locations and provide some of those recommendations to government.”

Will take advice, but ‘have to balance’: Stefanson

The question is whether the new premier is willing to consider those recommendations and has any subtle policy tricks up her sleeve.

In her first scrum with reporters, she employed the same sort of contradictory rhetoric both she and leadership rival Shelly Glover used in their campaigns when asked how they’d handle the fourth wave of the pandemic.

“We’ll continue to take the advice of the chief provincial public health officer, but we want to ensure we’re out listening to Manitobans as well, who are negatively impacted as a result of closures,” she said.

“We’ll take the advice, but we have to balance with what this means. If it’s looking at lockdowns and things like that, I don’t want to be looking at that.”

Winkler, Man., has the most active COVID-19 cases in Southern Health. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

To be clear, that statement is a paradox. Public health advice doesn’t always run afoul of business owners. But when it does, a politician can not heed that advice while simultaneously listening to lay people who are opposed to it.

This is important, because Stefanson was a cabinet minister in Brian Pallister’s government when the province failed to contain the second wave of COVID-19, which killed hundreds of Manitoba seniors. 

She also served as health minister when the same government failed to act quickly enough to contain a third wave that overwhelmed hospitals to the point where 57 COVID-19 patients had to be flown out of province for intensive care.

Stefanson has refused to concede that the PC government’s reduction of ICU capacity pre-pandemic exacerbated the third-wave hospital crunch. She responded to questions of her role during that the third wave by stating “coulda, shoulda, woulda.”

Manitoba is the last province in Canada dealing with a rising fourth wave. As it worsens — almost entirely in Southern Health — the new premier will be expected to speak plainly about her public-health policy intentions, rather than equivocate.

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