The small Manitoba city of Steinbach has a staggering 40 per cent of COVID-19 tests coming back positive — at least double the rate of other high-profile outbreaks in Canada.
“We’re seeing 30 to 40 positive tests everyday just in Steinbach,” said Dr. Brent Roussin, Manitoba’s chief provincial public health officer at a news conference Friday.
“We are seeing a lot of disproportionate numbers and we need to end that. We need people to follow the orders, staying home, leaving only for essential reasons, reducing our contacts.”
Steinbach, southeast of Winnipeg with a population of just over 15,000, has a significantly higher test positivity rate than Winnpeg, which as of Friday was at 13.7 per cent, said Roussin.
Steinbach’s COVID test positivity rate is also higher than many hotspots in the U.S., which has had the most cases and deaths in the world. North Dakota, Minnesota and Nebrasska’s rates are below 15 per cent, and New Mexico’s and Montana’s are hovering around 20 per cent, according to John Hopkins University.
Steinbach’s currently experiencing outbreaks in personal care homes and assisted living facilities, said Roussin. Local hospitals are overwhelmed with patients.
Last week, nurses at a Steinbach hospital’s emergency department reported they were forced to send COVID patients back to their cars or leave them in the ambulance bay for hours before a bed became available.
So far, 24 people have died in Steinbach, Roussin said, urging people to take Manitoba’s outbreaks more seriously. The city has halted in-class schooling in favour of online learning.
In the rural Manitoba municipality of Hanover, 30 per cent of tests are coming back positive each day, said Roussin.
During the first wave of the pandemic this spring, “I remember parking on the street and there were no cars to be seen. It was empty. It was quiet. Kind of a surreal feeling at that time,” said Roussin. “Driving to work today, the streets were full.
“We are at a critical juncture right now. Our hospitals are reaching capacity. We need to do better, all of us.”
Manitoba was one of the few provinces that quelled the first wave of COVID-19, and reported some of the lowest infection rates in the country, with no new cases for weeks at a time. Now it has the highest per-capita infection rate. Manitoba health officials reported 385 new COVID-19 cases on Saturday.
Premier Brian Pallister attributed the surge in cases to an anti-mask protest in Steinbach a week ago.
“We had about 700 people gather together last weekend and decided that they would have an idiotic protest and that they would not wear masks or protect one another. It’s also clear that as a direct consequence of that, the number of COVID cases has been bolstered there,” he told CBC’s Rosemary Barton in an interview that aired on Sunday.
Pallister has defended his government’s response to the pandemic. The day before, he told delegates at the Progressive Conservatives’ general meeting that “the second wave is upon us. Every province west of Nova Scotia has had its highest numbers in the last few days, including Manitoba.”
“Trying to make the political argument that Manitoba’s government missed the boat when everybody in the western world is under attack right now is not a fruitful thing — even if it was right and it isn’t,” Pallister said.
The province recently expanded intensive care, testing and contact-tracing capacity.
With files from the Canadian Press.
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This article originally appeared on HuffPost Canada and has been updated.