If there’s one thing we have learned about Dr. Brent Roussin, the chief provincial public health officer, is he tends to prepare Manitobans for what’s coming next in the COVID-19 pandemic.
Whether it’s changes to public-health orders or how Manitobans may be expected to rearrange their lives, Roussin often gives hints in advance that something is coming down the pike.
On Monday, Roussin began preparing people for a "post-pandemic Manitoba," where public-health restrictions will be replaced by recommendations, and where daily reporting of COVID-19 case numbers and test-positivity rates will become a thing of the past.
"We know that all pandemics end and this one will be no different," said Roussin. "Looking at other jurisdictions that have had high vaccine rates, we can see that perhaps this pandemic’s days are numbered."
Manitoba will not be in a "post-COVID" situation; the SARS-CoV-2 virus will likely be around some time, said Roussin. But once vaccination numbers reach a certain threshold and hospitalizations are stable, restrictions will be removed, he said.
That’s not to say Manitoba plans to eliminate them overnight; they will be phased out over time. However, because of high vaccine take-up, that will likely occur sooner than originally planned, he hinted.
"We are trending towards a post-pandemic Manitoba," he said. "We are heading to a place where we’re going to have public-health recommendations, but not restrictions."
Mandatory masks in indoor places will still be in place for now. But people will soon be making their own decisions about how the virus affects them and what steps they should take as individuals to protect themselves against it, said Roussin.
“We are trending towards a post-pandemic Manitoba. We are heading to a place where we’re going to have public-health recommendations, but not restrictions.” — Dr. Brent Roussin
"We’re never risk-free," he said. "Like many other health factors, we need to decide on how much risk we’re willing to take as individuals."
It’s a significant change in tone and a major departure from the approach taken throughout most of the pandemic. The message was very similar to the one delivered by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson Monday, as the United Kingdom gets set to lift most of its restrictions July 19.
"As we begin to learn to live with this virus, we must all continue to carefully manage the risks from COVID and exercise judgment when going about our lives," Johnson said.
Manitoba is not about to eliminate all of its restrictions over the next two weeks. Far from it. Roussin is simply preparing Manitobans for life after the pandemic. That means getting people used to the idea again that communicable diseases, including COVID-19, will always pose some risks. It’s a question of degree and how widespread severe outcomes are.
“As we begin to learn to live with this virus, we must all continue to carefully manage the risks from COVID and exercise judgment when going about our lives." — British Prime Minister Boris Johnson
That will be tricky for public-health officials to gauge, at least in the short term. As vaccination rates rise, the percentage of people who become severely ill from COVID-19 is expected to fall dramatically. That won't be easy to measure in real time.
In Britain, case numbers have been climbing significantly over the past week as the more contagious Delta variant spreads across the country. Experts there are hoping vaccination rates, which are higher than they are in Canada, will result in fewer cases of severe illness and death. So far, the number of deaths from COVID-19 in the U.K. continues to fall. However, deaths are a lagging indicator.
Public-health officials in Manitoba will be watching the Delta variant closely, but all eyes will be on hospital admissions — even more so than during earlier stages of the pandemic. There are few other ways of knowing with certainty how well vaccines are preventing people from becoming severely ill. That, too, has risks because hospitalizations are also a lagging indicator. Once they start to rise, as they did during the third wave, it takes weeks of punishing public-health measures to reverse the trend.
That’s why Manitoba will be in no rush to eliminate restrictions. However, if Roussin’s hints are any indication, a post-pandemic Manitoba is coming sooner than many had anticipated.
Tom has been covering Manitoba politics since the early 1990s and joined the Winnipeg Free Press news team in 2019.