Northern COVID-19 cases starting to stabilize, Manitoba changes variant detection methods

COVID-19 cases in several northern communities are declining, but variant cases in Manitoba are climbing after a change in health rules.

Twenty-seven new cases were reported in the Northern Health Region (NHR) March 30, part of the province’s 77 new announced cases. The northern district with the most new cases is the Island Lake district, where eight new cases were found. There are now 233 active cases in the remote eastern district, which has been the site of several outbreaks and has the highest number of confirmed COVID-19 cases - 1,363 in total, including deaths and recoveries - of any northern district.

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Closer to Flin Flon, one more case was found in the Flin Flon/Snow Lake/Cranberry Portage/Sherridon district, which now sits at five active cases. New cases in the community have been sporadically reported within the past month, with one, two or even three new cases popping up periodically.

The community outbreak in Pukatawagan/Mathias Colomb Cree Nation is continuing, but case numbers are slowing down. The district now sits at 323 active cases - the highest of any northern district - and five new cases were reported March 29, but new recoveries are being added to the provincial data count - five Monday and an additional one Tuesday. A total of 408 people, as of March 30, have tested positive in the district according to provincial government statistics.

On the Saskatchewan side of the border, the brakes have also been pulled on the ongoing Pelican Narrows outbreak. As of March 29, according to the community’s Angelique Canada Health Centre, only 22 active cases of COVID-19 remain in the community, which has been hit particularly hard by COVID-19 since it first appeared there last fall. According to the centre, 461 people served by the centre have tested positive for COVID-19 since the pandemic began, leading to six deaths. Nine people in the community are currently hospitalized due to the disease.

No major outbreaks or possible public exposures were announced in northern Manitoba March 30 Throughout the NHR, 668 people remain as active COVID-19 cases, more than half of the cases remaining active in Manitoba. A total of 1,197 people in Manitoba have active COVID-19 cases, along with 150 people in hospital and 31 people in intensive care due to the disease.

For more information about COVID-19 in northern districts, see the chart below.

Variants

The biggest story from Manitoba's March 29 briefing was the number of COVID-19 cases now being considered “variant of concern” cases. A total of 136 cases - all previously announced - have now been determined to be variant cases after special screening and sequencing of samples. The cases were reported in the Winnipeg, Southern Health-Sante Sud and Interlake-Eastern Regional Health Authority regions - no variant cases have been confirmed in northern Manitoba. Another 11 previously screened cases were announced as confirmed variant cases Tuesday - three in Southern Health-Sante Sud, one in the Interlake and seven in Winnipeg.

The reason for the increase in cases is due, according to chief provincial public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin, to a change in provincial health policy regarding classifying cases as variant of concern cases. Recently, the province has required any possible variant of concern test to be both separately screened and sequenced - a time-consuming process.

Roussin said that all the province’s variant cases, as found by screening, have later been confirmed by sequencing. As such, the province plans to now announce possible variant cases after being confirmed just by screening, not after sequencing.

“Manitoba has been screening for variants since the beginning of this pandemic. At that point, screening was done on samples that were selected due to concerning traits, either part of an outbreak or recent travel and some random assortments of samples,” said Roussin.

“Sequencing is of course a much more complex and time-consuming component of detecting these variants. Not every variant of concern screened positive sample requires sequencing anymore.”

Roussin said the new policy draws Manitoba closer to provinces like Alberta and Ontario, which both already announce variant cases after screening, not after sequencing.

That’s why today, we’re going to see a jump in variant of concern cases, because no we have included those that have been screened that would have required sequencing in the past.”

AstraZeneca

Manitoba announced changes to its provincial vaccination program Monday, cutting some people out of eligibility for the AstraZeneca-COVISHIELD vaccine due to rare but possible safety concerns.

The province, instead of offering the vaccine to people ages 50-64, will raise the minimum age to 55. Saskatchewan followed suit and announced a similar change later in the day.

“We are implementing this change effective immediately,” said Dr. Joss Reimer, medical lead for Manitoba’s COVID-19 task force.

“In Manitoba, these vaccines are currently available through medical clinics and pharmacies. We are speaking to those partners today so they can adjust their vaccination plans. Anybody under the age of 55 will be contacted to cancel their appointment.”

The reason is due to reports of a rare but serious blood clot reported in some recipients of the vaccine. Reimer characterized the clot as affecting “somewhere around one in 100,000 to one in a million people who receive the vaccine” and said it can appear up to three weeks after the shot and mirror the symptoms of a heart attack or stroke.

The incidence of the clot is rare enough that, assuming the rate of incidence is the one in 100,000 figure, if every single man, woman and child in the NHR - population 74,145 - were to receive the AstraZeneca vaccine, no recipients would likely experience ill effects.

“I know this could be very disappointing news for people who were expecting to receive the vaccine. We want this to be done in the safest way possible,” Reimer said.

 

Cases by northern district (Manitoba) active cases recoveries deaths total cases
Bay Line 1 63 0 64
Bunibonibee/Oxford House/Manto Sipi/Gods River/Gods Lake 14 359 5 378
Churchill (covered by Winnipeg Regional Health Authority) 0 0 0 0
Cross Lake/Pimicikamak 29 619 2 650
Flin Flon/Snow Lake/Cranberry Portage/Sherridon 5 88 2 95
Gillam/Fox Lake 0 97 0 97
Grand Rapids/Misipawistik/Moose Lake/Mosakahiken/Easterville/Chemawawin 10 338 5 353
Island Lake 233 1123 7 1363
Lynn Lake/Marcel Colomb/Leaf Rapids/O-Pipon-Na-Piwin/Granville Lake 3 344 3 350
Nelson House/Nisichawayasihk 0 38 0 38
Norway House 0 53 0 53
Pukatawagan/Mathias Colomb 323 85 0 408
Sayisi Dene/Tadoule/Barren Lands/Brochet/Northlands/Lac Brochet 3 22 1 26
Shamattawa/York Factory/Tataskweyak/Split Lake 6 471 2 479
The Pas/Opaskwayak/Kelsey 20 512 9 541
Thompson/Mystery Lake 18 895 3 916
Unknown district 3 111 0 114
Case totals as of Mar. 30 668 5218 39 5925

 

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