The spread of COVID-19 may be out of control, but the Manitoba government isn’t ready to move to a code-red pandemic response or the lockdowns that go with it.
"Case numbers are on the rise but case numbers maybe mean something different with this variant," Premier Heather Stefanson said Tuesday.
She said she’s listening to public health officials who are tracking Omicron’s health outcomes in other jurisdictions.
"There’s been preliminary results showing it’s not as severe as the previous Delta variant," she said on a day when Manitoba reported 1,757 new COVID-19 infections and a record-high test positivity rate of 39 per cent. Anything above five per cent indicates the virus is spreading out of control, public health experts have said since the start of the pandemic.
"It’s all about ‘What does this mean to our hospital numbers?’" Stefanson said. "What does this mean for our ICU numbers? We need to keep laser-focused on that," the premier said.
"It seems that some people are getting the Omicron variant that are not getting the severe outcome. Some don’t even get symptoms."
“It seems that some people are getting the Omicron variant that are not getting the severe outcome. Some don’t even get symptoms.” — Premier Heather Stefanson
On Tuesday, 23 more Manitobans who had contracted the virus were being treated in hospital than one day earlier, but the number of people in intensive care with COVID-19 held steady at 32. The province’s pandemic dashboard indicated 251 people were being treated for COVID-19 in hospitals.
"It’s an evolving situation," said deputy chief provincial public health officer Dr. Jazz Atwal, who attended Tuesday’s news conference remotely.
They’re watching other jurisdictions where Omicron took hold earlier and expect to have information related to severe outcomes and hospitalizations next week, he said.
They won’t move Manitoba into a code red and impose more restrictions — such as ordering non-essential businesses to close — unless it’s necessary, Atwal said.
“We don’t have crystal balls. We’re doing the best we can with the information and the resources we have to try and keep Manitobans safe, and to ensure that we’re able to partake in those activities that we enjoy.” — Deputy chief provincial public health officer Dr. Jazz Atwal
The province’s colour-coded pandemic response system says "critical" code-red restrictions could be imposed if extensive community transmission of COVID-19 is occurring and not contained, there are widespread outbreaks and new clusters that cannot be controlled through testing and contact tracing, or the virus is being transmitted at levels that public health and the health system deem concerning or critical.
"We’re going to continue to look at the evidence, and when further information is available and announcements are ready to be made, we will make those announcements," Atwal said. The ever-changing virus and its variants are "challenging," he said.
"We don’t have crystal balls. We’re doing the best we can with the information and the resources we have to try and keep Manitobans safe, and to ensure that we’re able to partake in those activities that we enjoy."
NDP health critic Uzoma Asagwara said the criteria for calling a COVID-19 code red is here and now.
"We are in a state of crisis," the former nurse said. The MLA for Union Station called out the Progressive Conservative government for not equitably distributing KN95 masks and rapid tests to Manitobans, especially those most vulnerable to severe outcomes of COVID-19.
"So far what we haven’t seen is this government ensure that people have access to the things they need to be safe and the government proactively planning to protect its citizens," Asagwara said.
“So far what we haven’t seen is this government ensure that people have access to the things they need to be safe and the government proactively planning to protect its citizens." — NDP health critic Uzoma Asagwara
Until that happens, Manitoba needs to move to code red on the pandemic response system and impose further restrictions, said Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont.
"We know that people want to go back to school. We know people want to go back to work and go back to their normal lives. The reality is Manitoba is not in a position to do that safely right now," he said.
"We have to protect the health-care system because we’re only a few people away from the ICU being overloaded. Once the health-care system can’t function properly, that’s when deaths start to go up," he said.
"It’s not just COVID that kills people, it’s that COVID takes people out of caring, so that you do not have enough people to feed and give water to people in personal care homes. We do not want a repeat of Maples," he said referring to the Maples Personal Care Home, where an outbreak killed 56 residents in late 2020.
After 20 years of reporting on the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home, Carol moved to the legislature bureau in early 2020.