COVID-19 threatens to overwhelm Canada's health system
In July, the Canadian province of Manitoba went two weeks without a single new case of COVID-19. Theaters and casinos reopened and children soon returned to school.
By October, the 1.4 million people living in a province only slightly smaller geographically than Texas had Canada's highest rate of active cases - now 512 per 100,000 people, or nearly quadruple the national rate.
"In a couple of weeks, we're going to be in a catastrophic situation," said Dr. Anand Kumar, a Manitoba intensive care physician.
Many Americans looked longingly north of the border during the pandemic's first wave, as Canada kept COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations under control while they skyrocketed in the United States. But Canadians’ exhaustion with pandemic restrictions is now coinciding with an outbreak that threatens to overwhelm health systems in several provinces.
Canada has recorded over 302,000 cases and more than 11,000 deaths during the pandemic. Nationally, there were 1,114 COVID-19 patients in hospital as of Nov. 3, well below a spring peak of 2,701 but double what they were a month ago.
At this pace, Canada's daily case tally may more than double by early December, health officials warned last week.
The situation is already turning dire in Manitoba, where community transmission is so rampant through care homes, hospitals and family gatherings that health officials are unable to identify the main sources.
In Manitoba's capital Winnipeg, with a population of 750,000, Kumar sees a trend similar to the outbreaks that overwhelmed New York City in the spring and currently El Paso, Texas, requiring freezer trucks to store bodies as they piled up.
Manitoba's single-day record of 508 cases on Nov. 10 is triple the total from two weeks earlier, with intensive care units (ICU) nearly full.
"Once you go past ICU capacity, the mortality rate shoots right up like a rocket," said Kumar, who is trained in treating infectious diseases and in critical care.
Manitoba plans to set up makeshift hospitals in arenas or convention centers to accommodate overflow patients.
"This is becoming more distressing every day," said Manitoba's Chief Nursing Officer Lanette Siragusa. "If we had a worst-case scenario, this would be it."
Alberta, home of Canada's second-highest rate of current cases, has seen hospitalizations and infections requiring intensive care surge past earlier highs, including outbreaks in 10 hospitals.
In Quebec, which has Canada's highest rate and number of deaths, some infected seniors at nursing homes with outbreaks are being moved to other facilities, raising fears of viral spread.
Ontario's active cases are climbing even as the province has tightened restrictions on a growing number of regions.