Manitoba should wait a full incubation period after the holidays before it considers easing COVID-19 restrictions.
Doing so any earlier would be premature and could cost lives.
Manitoba’s current code-red restrictions are set to expire Jan. 8. With daily COVID-19 cases falling and thousands of vaccines expected to be administered this month, there may be a temptation to start rolling back public-health orders.
Everyone is tired of living like hermits, but that would be a mistake — at least until a full two weeks after Jan. 1.
Everyone is tired of living like hermits.
There's little doubt many Manitobans visited family and friends outside their households over the holidays. The province announced 44 tickets were handed out to people who unlawfully gathered in private residences between Dec. 21 and 27 (up from 35 the previous week). Those are just the people who got caught. There were undoubtedly many more.
Some people also travelled outside the province over the holidays; there was a marked increase in flights arriving and departing around Christmas, including many from western provinces. The Pallister government refused to reinstate the 14-day self-isolation rule for people returning from western provinces after lifting it in June. That means those travellers did not have to self-isolate when they arrived in Manitoba. (There are already four identified flights from western provinces in late December that carried passengers who tested positive for COVID-19).
New Year’s celebrations were also high-risk, and it’s likely many Manitobans socialized with others outside their households on Dec. 31 and Jan. 1.
Household interactions continue to be one of the chief sources of transmission.
The Public Health Agency of Canada says COVID-19 symptoms can appear up to 14 days after infection. The vast majority (97.5 per cent) develop symptoms within 11.5 days. The province should, at least, extend current restrictions to Jan. 15.
COVID-19 case numbers have come down in recent weeks. That’s solid evidence the measures in place have been working. But it’s also due, in part, to a significant drop in daily testing. The test-positivity rate in Manitoba has not dipped below double digits since early November, which means there’s still plenty of virus circulating in the province. It was 10.7 per cent Monday, down only slightly from 11.5 per cent two weeks ago. The World Health Organization recommends a rate below five per cent before easing restrictions.
COVID-19 hot spot Alberta has a test-positivity rate of seven per cent.
Hospitalization rates in Manitoba are also stubbornly high. The number of patients in hospital with COVID-19 has dropped since early December, but has plateaued over the past two weeks. There were 340 COVID-19 patients in hospital Monday, virtually unchanged from 343 a week ago. The number of COVID-19 patients in ICU Monday (41) was up slightly from a week ago (37). There was a total of 113 patients in ICU Monday (157 per cent of normal capacity), up from 111 Thursday.
Those numbers are not sustainable.
Hospitalization rates and the test positivity need to come down further before any measures are relaxed, even after Jan. 15.
Premier Brian Pallister said last week there would "almost certainly" be an easing of restrictions in the new year. It was a vague statement without a timeline. However, it’s troubling he would even suggest it before the holiday data comes in.
Dr. Brent Roussin, the provincial chief public health officer, said Monday no decisions have been made whether restrictions will be eased after Jan. 8. He said Manitobans will get more information on that later in the week.
Lifting restrictions prematurely would be reckless. It could drive up case numbers and give the public a false sense of security. The combined impact of holiday celebrations and a new, more contagious variant of COVID-19 that originated in Britain (and is now in Canada) could make January the worst month yet.
Manitobans made a lot of sacrifices in recent weeks to flatten the COVID-19 curve and prevent hospitalizations from climbing further. It would be unforgivable if those gains were erased because of a hasty move to loosen restrictions.
Tom has been covering Manitoba politics since the early 1990s and joined the Winnipeg Free Press news team in 2019.