The Manitoba government knew COVID-19 cases and hospitalization rates were on track for the worst-case scenario — but officials waited to impose tougher restrictions until the number of infected and hospitalized Manitobans had significantly surpassed the most extreme projections.
Modelling data released Friday show Manitoba's infection rate and hospital admissions exceed the worst-case trajectory. It's the same data the government relied on when it announced May 7 it would further restrict gathering sizes, and close restaurants, gyms, libraries and other businesses. On May 12, schools in Winnipeg and Brandon were closed, too.
It was too late to stop the rise of the third wave. By the time the province tweaked public-health orders April 20 and toughened them significantly May 9, daily case counts and hospitalizations were already well above the model's worst-case scenario. But because the province has rarely released its epidemic modelling data, it's unclear how long officials knew Manitoba's outlook was this dire.
The models released Friday were completed in late April, and before that, the province was relying on a model that showed a much slower pace for growing infection rates and intensive-care hospitalizations, a provincial spokesperson said. They had two different models — one extreme and one conservative — and were relying on the slow-growth projections, the spokesperson said.
In the best-case scenario, Manitobans can expect another two to four weeks of rising hospitalizations, and at least another week of increasing daily case counts before numbers start to drop, deputy chief provincial public health officer Dr. Jazz Atwal said when he released the models.
Atwal said the province plans to release its projections regularly. He agreed releasing such troubling data earlier might have convinced more Manitobans to follow stricter public-health orders.
"Perhaps for some, maybe if they saw a model earlier, it would change that behaviour. Obviously we spoke to it, we stressed the importance of it, we had acute-care colleagues (showing) how busy the hospitals are," Atwal said.
"It is challenging to say. You know, maybe it would have helped in some situations. In other situations, it probably wouldn't have made a difference either," he added, saying some people will break the rules no matter what.
The projections take into account vaccination rates, but they don't include the potential effect of the new restrictions that took effect May 9. The projections likely underestimate the impact of the highly transmissible variants, Atwal said, adding it's possible Manitoba's test-positivity rates will rise above 15 per cent in the coming weeks.
"A high uptake of vaccine is what's going to allow Manitobans to get back to summer the way they remember summer being," Atwal said.
The fact Manitoba's case counts and hospitalization rates have been tracking near the worst-case extremes for months, makes it even more surprising that severe restrictions haven't been put in place, said Winnipeg medical microbiologist Dr. Phillippe Lagacé-Wiens.
He and many of his colleagues have been calling for swifter action since the Tory government began slowly reopening in late January. He said he believes all non-essential businesses need to close immediately.
It will be nearly two months before Manitobans see an improvement, he predicted, but not before we hit higher peaks for ICU admissions and infection rates than we had in the second wave.
"Had we implemented stricter interventions considerably earlier, when we first started to see those slight increases in cases, we probably wouldn't have been in it as long," he said.
NDP Leader Wab Kinew said he didn't understand why it took so long for the government to release its modelling data.
"Manitobans may have been able to turn this thing around more quickly," Kinew said. "Manitobans are mature. They can handle the truth and, when we give that information to people, it helps all of us."
The provincial government imposed increasingly strict rules to curb the spread of COVID-19. Here are the dates of the most recent public health orders and some of the restrictions they included:
The following restrictions were scheduled to be in effect until May 12
The following restrictions were scheduled to be in effect until May 12:
• all households may only have two designated visitors indoors
• outdoor gatherings on public and private property limited to a maximum of 10 people including household members
• faith-based gatherings limited to 25 per cent capacity or 50 people, whichever is lower, with indoor mask orders in place except while household groups are seated at a service, are appropriately distanced from other groups and are not singing
The province beefed up its restrictions, which were scheduled to be in effect for four weeks:
• no visitors will be allowed to private households either indoors or outdoors with certain exceptions, including allowing one visitor for people who live alone
• no indoor gatherings will be permitted and outdoor gatherings of up to 10 people will be allowed in public outdoor spaces only
• faith-based gatherings will be limited to 25 per cent capacity or a maximum of 10 people, whichever is lower, with indoor mask use required
• patio dining will be restricted to groups of four people only with no household restrictions
• food courts in malls and shopping centres will be required to close
• gyms and fitness centres continue to be limited to 25 per cent capacity, but individuals, patrons and staff will be required to maintain physical distancing of three metres from others
May 9 (for a period of three weeks)
As daily virus case counts skyrocketed, the province tightened the rules again. The following restrictions are in effect for three weeks:
• outdoor gatherings in public places that include people from multiple households are limited to a maximum of five people
• restaurants, bars and patios will close to in-person dining but can provide take-out and delivery
• gyms and fitness centres will close
• casinos remain closed and VLTs will close
• museums, galleries and libraries will close
• indoor community, cultural and religious gatherings are prohibited
• personal services such as estheticians, barbers, salons and tanning salons will close
• indoor sports and recreation, including after-school activities, will close
• outdoor sports and recreation activities will have a maximum of five participants and organized team games will not be permitted
• dance, theatre and music schools will close
• day camps will close
• retail stores, markets and garden centres will be able to open at 10 per cent capacity, to a maximum of 100 people, and malls will be open to a maximum of 10 per cent of capacity
Repeatedly, public-health officials have said household gatherings are responsible for most of the virus's spread, but community transmission is a significant risk in the province. In 45 per cent of all cases, there is no information on how COVID-19 was transmitted, according to provincial data from April 25 to May 1. Unknown (community transmission) was present in 23 per cent of cases, and contact tracing was still pending in 21 per cent of cases.
Atwal said some Manitobans who get infected aren't being honest with contact tracers about how they contracted it, while others admit they've broken the rules.
"We have lots of evidence of that," he said.
The pace of the vaccine rollout is speeding up, and second-dose appointments are expected to start being booked before May 22. On Wednesday, all adults in Manitoba became eligible for COVID-19 vaccines, and as of Friday, youth 12 to 18 became eligible.
On Friday, Manitoba reported 491 new infections. Of those, 328 were in Winnipeg, where the test-positivity rate was 14.2 per cent.
As of Friday morning, 239 COVID-19 patients were in hospital, including 67 in intensive care.
— with files from Danielle Da Silva and Carol Sanders
Katie May reports on courts, crime and justice for the Free Press.