Health officials in Manitoba say our province will shift away from trying to contain the COVID-19 virus. Instead, it will focus on managing the risk at the community level, while encouraging Manitobans to do their part to reduce their own personal risk.

Manitoba Premier Heather Stefanson was joined by Health Minister Audrey Gordon, Deputy Chief Provincial Public Health Officer Dr. Jazz Atwal and the Medical Lead with Manitoba's Vaccine Implementation Task Force, Dr. Joss Reimer in providing an update Wednesday afternoon on the COVID-19 situation in our province.

Dr. Atwal says the COVID-19 virus has changed dramatically in only a short period of time. This has resulted in a change to how the province deals with the virus. In recent weeks, the province has announced changes to its contact tracing strategy and also changes to how it tests for the virus.

Dr. Atwal says when COVID-19 first emerged, you could expect that for every person infected, there may be an additional three of four people infected. The incubation period was longer and it appeared more possible to attempt to contain the virus. But, with the Omicron variant, Dr. Atwal says one person might infect 12 to 16 others, and by the time the initial person tests positive, he or she has probably exposed many others.

He notes Omicron has a much shorter incubation period than the original virus and other variants. Dr. Atwal says the exposure time to when symptoms appear was four to five days for the Delta variant of concern, but is only three days with Omicron. He adds with Omicron, length of stays in hospital are lower, the risk of hospitalization is lower and so too are ICU admissions.

"COVID-19 is no longer an emerging illness, it is here to stay and our ability to contain the virus is limited," he admits. "It is highly likely that everyone will be exposed to the virus in the coming weeks."

For example, on Wednesday, our province announced that there are 424 Manitobans in hospital with COVID-19. But Gordon says only a fraction of those hospitalizations are the result of COVID-19. She notes only one-third of Manitoba's COVID-19 positive hospitalizations are because of COVID-19, the other two-thirds are individuals who have been hospitalized for another medical reason but then also happen to have tested positive.

Dr. Atwal says similar to seasonal influenza, we are going to have to adjust to working, learning and living with COVID-19 circulating in our communities. He notes one way the province will pivot its efforts is through case management.

"Given the transmissibility of Omicron it is not possible to manage cases at the individual level, we have to focus on managing the risk at the community level," he says. "We have to shift to mitigating the impact of COVID-19 and away from containing the virus. Shifting our approach does not mean public health has given up the fight against COVID-19, it means we are shifting our approaches to focus our efforts and our resources to best manage the risk."

He says this means focusing on providing vaccines through additional appointments and shifting staff as well as identifying those eligible for treatment. Health officials noted on Wednesday that the best way to protect yourself, is to get vaccinated and boosted.

"Our message today is that the way you stay out of the ER hallways and the way that you stay out of our hospitals and our ICUs is to recharge your immunity by getting your third dose," notes Gordon.

Dr. Atwal says it is also still important to practice the fundamentals, which includes physical distancing, wearing a proper fitting mask, good hand hygiene and staying home when sick. He adds it is important to continue monitoring for symptoms and if symptoms develop to self-isolate and get tested.

"Let's face it, the virus changed quite dramatically on us in a short period of time, this is almost behaving like an entirely different virus," he notes. "Shorter incubation, much more infectious, we would not be able to contain this virus, so we have to learn to live with this virus. One of the positives from this virus is it has much less severe outcomes, especially if you are vaccinated."