It’s been almost two weeks since Manitoba eased COVID-19 restrictions — which is about the time it takes most people infected with the disease to show symptoms. Since then, daily case numbers have declined, infection rates have fallen, and hospitals continue to have fewer patients.
Nearly a year into this public health emergency, could it be that Manitobans have finally learned to live with the SARS-CoV-2 virus?
Chief provincial public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin doesn’t say it anymore, but Manitobans do need to learn to live with it — at least until there is widespread distribution of a vaccine, which appears unlikely before the fall. That means doing all the things public health officials have monotonously instructed us to do: social distance, stay home when sick, wash your hands, limit your contacts, quarantine when told, and wear a mask.
If we do all those things, we can live semi-normal lives; we can shop, get a haircut in a salon, host up to two designated visitors in our homes, and play mini games of shinny on outdoor rinks. Most kids can attend class, as long as schools maintain cohorts and implement rigorous safeguards. That’s what learning to live with the virus looks like.
So far, the numbers are encouraging: Manitoba’s test positivity rate has dropped nearly one-third to 6.7 per cent over the past two weeks (it’s down almost half to 3.6 per cent in Winnipeg). There were 216 new COVID-19 cases on Jan. 23; nearly double Thursday’s tally of 110. New case numbers fell below 100 twice this week. The number of COVID-19 patients in hospital is down slightly, including fewer active cases than two weeks ago.
Those are remarkable improvements, namely because they occurred while restrictions were eased. It shows how well people have adapted to the new normal.
That’s different than last summer, when the virus had still not taken a foothold in Manitoba. It was easier to keep infections low in July and August because there was virtually no community transmission. The pandemic didn’t hit Manitoba in earnest until September.
The provincial government is also learning to live with the virus. The province made some egregious errors last summer when it disbanded its incident command centre and failed to ensure adequate resources were in place for testing and contact tracing. When cases began to rise in September, the province was ill-equipped to contain the growing spread. The province has since increased resources in both areas and is now far better prepared.
The province also failed to protect personal care home residents last year, including turning away requests for staffing support. That cost lives. More resources and better oversight are now in place.
Manitoba has made great strides in adapting to a communicable disease that, left unchecked, has the potential to kill thousands of people.
There are rewards for that: restrictions will likely be loosened further next week. The proposed changes announced Thursday, which include opening restaurants at 25 per cent capacity, are sensible and well thought out. They are, for the most part, low-risk and include sufficient safeguards to mitigate spread.
Higher-risk activity, such as opening bars or expanding the two-visitor per household rule, were avoided, for good reason. Prolonged, indoor contact in close proximity without the use of masks is a recipe for super-spreading. That can be mitigated for restaurants by limiting groups to household members, as proposed (something that would make little sense for bars).
These are cautious, limited steps. There is no reason why infection rates can’t remain low under the proposed restrictions. One of the key differences compared with last fall is that a mandatory mask rule for indoor public places was not in place in Winnipeg until late September. Failure to wear a mask was not subject to a fine until November. Households were also allowed to host up to five non-designated visitors, which was a key source of transmission.
If Manitobans have truly learned to live with this virus, this plan should work. We now have the experience and the know-how.
Tom has been covering Manitoba politics since the early 1990s and joined the Winnipeg Free Press news team in 2019.