Ten months of indoor mask mandates will be peeled back this weekend, as Manitobans begin to mingle face-to-face with strangers at grocery stores, coffee shops and gyms, regardless of COVID-19 immunization status.
Dr. Joss Reimer, medical lead for the province’s COVID-19 vaccine task force, said the risk associated with ditching masks still needs to be considered, even by people who have been fully vaccinated.
"There will always be some people who experience severe outcomes despite being vaccinated, and that’s why it’s so important to get as many people as possible in Manitoba vaccinated, so that we can reduce the amount of virus circulating in our communities and lower the risk for everyone," Reimer said during a media briefing Tuesday.
"The risk is certainly higher for people who have received zero or one dose, but it’s not zero for those with two doses — and we want to bring that risk down as much as we possibly can."
Earlier Tuesday, chief provincial public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin and Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister revealed masks would not be mandated — but would be strongly recommended — in indoor public places, as of Aug. 7.
Retailers, gyms and fitness centres and hair salons can also operate without restrictions, including capacity limits, while physical distancing is recommended.
Reimer said there is a concerning risk for people who have received fewer than two doses of a COVID-19 vaccine and choose not to wear a mask as they venture into indoor public places, especially in areas where immunization rates are low or the more infectious Delta variant is spreading.
"As we move towards more public health recommendations as opposed to restrictions, the vaccine becomes more important than ever," Reimer added. "I’m really pleading with Manitobans to come and get vaccinated to protect themselves and everyone around them."
As of Tuesday, 80 per cent of Manitobans at least 12 years of age had received one dose of COVID-19 vaccine and 71.4 per cent were fully vaccinated.
In Winnipeg, the uptake rate jumps to 82.8 per cent; in Southern Health, it was at 60.2 per cent.
Reimer said the task force predicts those levels to rise slowly, even as the province removes some of the privileges extended to fully vaccinated people. She suggested the reduction in restrictions may also encourage people debating the shot to be immunized.
"Certainly, for some individuals who may have felt protected by the public health restrictions, they may see more incentive to going and getting that personal protection through the vaccine now, that perhaps they didn’t earlier," Reimer said.
Dr. Philippe Lagacé-Wiens, an assistant professor of medical microbiology at the University of Manitoba, said it is hard to assess the risk of dropping mask mandates for fully vaccinated people. But those who choose to don a face covering inside local businesses are making a good choice, he added Tuesday.
"We know that masks are primarily used to prevent the individual who is infected from transmitting it, so it really only works if everybody is on board with it," Lagacé-Wiens said.
"Just keep doing it... The strong recommendation is still there."
In indoor public places, where transmission risk is high, he said, the chance of running into someone who may be carrying the novel coronavirus is still good — and there are no guarantees people who choose not to wear a mask are vaccinated.
When weighing the threat of the Delta variant, the number of children and adults who have yet to be vaccinated and the possibility vaccine protection wanes over time, Lagacé-Wiens said it is too early to put masks away.
"Is it possible that our vaccine levels and our natural infection levels are such that there’s just enough immunity to prevent major widespread disease that lands a lot of people in hospital? It’s possible," Lagacé-Wiens said. "But I think we don’t have the data to be sure of that in this changing environment.
"That’s why I think it’s a lot easier to keep some of these mandates on board than to try to take them off and put them back on again."
Roussin said Tuesday while the virus can spread among fully vaccinated people, hospitalizations and deaths are significantly reduced.
"Public health restrictions had always been designed at limiting severe outcomes," he said.
Last week, a total of 24 fully vaccinated Manitobans tested positive for COVID-19, and four were admitted to hospital for treatment.
Since the vaccine rollout began in mid-December, 399 fully immunized Manitobans have been diagnosed with the disease, or 0.05 per cent of fully vaccinated residents.
Danielle Da Silva
Danielle Da Silva is a general assignment reporter.
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