Manitoba health officials haven't made a decision on when a mask mandate and other pandemic restrictions will return, sparking fear the changes will be made too late to quell a fourth-wave “tsunami” of COVID-19.

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Manitoba health officials haven't made a decision on when a mask mandate and other pandemic restrictions will return, sparking fear the changes will be made too late to quell a fourth-wave "tsunami" of COVID-19.

On Tuesday, Premier Brian Pallister and chief provincial public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin announced Manitoba will reintroduce an indoor mask mandate and widen the list of activities and services open only to the fully vaccinated. Both Roussin and the premier said the new orders are in response to increasing concerns about fourth-wave projections and the rising number of variant cases in other jurisdictions.

"We need to get to higher ground to avoid the tsunami," Pallister told reporters.

Several large public gatherings are scheduled in the city over the weekend, including the Red River Exhibition Fall Fair and a concert at the Burton Cummings Theatre Friday, two Manitoba 150 concerts at Shaw Park Saturday and a Winnipeg Blue Bombers game Sunday.

But Thursday the province still had not said when new public-health orders will take effect.

Chief provincial public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin (front) and premier Brian Pallister announced Tuesday masks would be mandatory in all indoor spaces, but didn't say when the rules would come into effect. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Chief provincial public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin (front) and premier Brian Pallister announced Tuesday masks would be mandatory in all indoor spaces, but didn't say when the rules would come into effect. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press files)

"When decisions have been finalized, they will be announced," a provincial government spokeswoman said Thursday by email.

Social epidemiologist Souradet Shaw warned that Manitoba needs to act soon.

"The longer the delay is, the more challenging it is to address exponential growth," the assistant professor of community health sciences at Max Rady College of Medicine said Thursday.

The daily COVID-19 case count in Manitoba jumped to 105 Wednesday, the first time it had risen above 100 since June. The number of new cases dropped to 56 Thursday, but that shouldn't come as a relief to anyone, said Shaw, the Canada Research Chair in Program Science and Global Public Health.

"It is important to think of longer-term averages," he said. "For example, today’s seven-day average this week is about 50, compared to the seven-day average of from last Thursday, which was around 26 cases. This is concerning, and not entirely unexpected, given what we know about COVID’s incubation period.

"Remember that the cases we are seeing announced today likely happened weeks ago.... It is going to get a lot worse before it gets better. My concern is that mask requirements and vaccine passports at this stage in the game may be too little, too late, before we start seeing impacts in hospitalizations and ICU admissions, which we know are already strained."

The province rolled back some restrictions on Aug. 7.

"I think it would have been prudent to keep the mask mandate, and to keep the mixing of vaccinated and unvaccinated populations to a minimum," Shaw said.

"We always knew opening up would result in higher case counts; having simple and effective layers of protection to mitigate this increase would have resulted in a smaller reservoir of infections."

On the same day that the premier and the chief public health officer announced that proof of vaccination will be required at more places and mask requirements will be be reimposed, Roussin's deputy, Dr. Jazz Atwal unveiled alarming new pandemic projections for the province.

In an extreme scenario, COVID-19 cases could hit 2,400 per day by December, the modelling showed.

A fourth wave of the virus is poised to once again overrun Manitoba's intensive-care capacity, thanks to the much more infectious delta variant spreading among pockets of unvaccinated residents, Atwal said.

Too few Manitobans are vaccinated and without greater uptake and tougher public-health measures, the acute-care system could be overwhelmed within four months, he said.

The majority of new cases lately have been reported in the Southern Health region, which has the lowest vaccination rates in the province.

Shaw said the province needs to be more proactive about detecting cases in schools and coming up with plans to mitigate spread.

Southern Health has 211,986 residents, and reported 22 of Manitoba's 56 new cases Thursday, compared to 18 in the Winnipeg region, which has a population of 791,284.

Even if there wasn't a high rate of vaccine hesitancy and COVID-19 denialism in the region, nearly a quarter of Southern Health's residents are under the age of 15 and most are under 12, making them ineligible to get the shot.

"I fear we’ve just built up a large reservoir of cases which will be amplified by unvaccinated children going back to elementary school," Shaw said.

Several large public gatherings are scheduled in the city over the weekend, including the Red River Ex (above), three concerts and a Bombers game. (Sasha Sefter / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Several large public gatherings are scheduled in the city over the weekend, including the Red River Ex (above), three concerts and a Bombers game. (Sasha Sefter / Winnipeg Free Press files)

"My hope is that the province plans accordingly."

Former health minister Heather Stefanson, who has been in southern Manitoba communities this week campaigning to replace Pallister at the helm of the Progressive Conservative party, said low vaccine uptake isn't what most people she's met wanted to talk about.

"What primarily came out of Winkler-Morden — we talked a lot about economic development," she said.

The Tuxedo MLA said she hasn't encountered any anti-vaccine or anti-mask hecklers.

"I've been encouraging people all over Manitoba to get vaccinated and that hasn't changed... I was very open and forthright about that," she said.

The current five-day COVID-19 test positivity rate was 2.8 per cent provincially and 1.5 per cent in Winnipeg Thursday. In addition to the 56 new cases, the province reported the death of a man in his 20s from the Interlake-Eastern Health Region.

carol.sanders@freepress.mb.ca

Carol Sanders

Carol Sanders
Legislature reporter

After 20 years of reporting on the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home, Carol moved to the legislature bureau in early 2020.

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