Health officials pleaded with Manitobans to scale back holiday gatherings Wednesday, warning the province could be dealing with as many as 1,000 new COVID-19 cases a day next month if the omicron variant takes hold.

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Health officials pleaded with Manitobans to scale back holiday gatherings Wednesday, warning the province could be dealing with as many as 1,000 new COVID-19 cases a day next month if the omicron variant takes hold.

Chief provincial public health officer Brent Roussin delivered the grim projections at a news conference at the RBC Convention Centre, where Health Minister Audrey Gordon got her booster.

"Get the third dose as soon as you’re eligible," he said. "If you’re planning very large gatherings over this holiday season, you need to reconsider those. We may have restrictions that could come in that could affect that, but with or without the restrictions, if you have higher-risk people at those gatherings, you’re putting people you care about at risk."

He said it’s particularly important for people over the age of 60 and those with underlying medical conditions to avoid big groups, but he declined to impose any new restrictions on gathering sizes. He recommended Manitobans avoid mixing households and ensure all attendees are vaccinated.

Public-health officials are bracing for "exponential growth" of COVID-19 cases because of the omicron variant.

There are six confirmed cases in the province, too small a number upon which to base future projections, Roussin said. But the modelling released Wednesday is based on omicron’s transmission rates in other jurisdictions, including the U.K., B.C. and Ontario. Early data shows omicron is much more transmissible than the currently dominant delta variant. In Ontario, it is taking only three days for omicron cases to double in number, compared with an average of 34 days for delta.

“We all need to reconsider our holiday plans because omicron is on its way here.” — Dr. Brent Roussin

"We know from other jurisdictions once we see this spreading in the community, we are weeks away from it being the dominant strain," Roussin said. "We need to act now to decrease the impact of this very concerning variant in Manitoba."

The modelling suggests the number of new daily COVID-19 cases within two weeks could easily exceed the third-wave peak of 500 from mid-May.

Winnipeg epidemiologist Cynthia Carr said the modelling is not meant to scare people, but it sheds light on what could happen. In the absence of additional black-and-white rules on gatherings, Carr said people should be thinking about who they spend time with and for what length of time this season, carefully weighing all of the risks.

If you don’t need to travel or visit a crowded location, don’t, she said.

"I personally wouldn’t be getting together in a large party setting," Carr said, comparing this reality to choosing not to drive in a blizzard.

"We drive to conditions. Same thing in this situation; let’s react to conditions."

<p>Manitoba’s projections under a transmission scenario similar to what’s been observed in Ontario and the U.K. would result in 225 cases per day by Dec. 25, provincial official said.</p>

Manitoba’s projections under a transmission scenario similar to what’s been observed in Ontario and the U.K. would result in 225 cases per day by Dec. 25, provincial official said.

The province has not changed its six-month wait period between second and third vaccine doses for residents younger than 60, following national guidelines. As of last week, Manitobans older than 60 are eligible to get third doses as soon as five months has elapsed since their second doses. Roussin hinted wider availability of rapid tests may be on the way, and Premier Heather Stefanson said the province is working with the federal government to get as many rapid tests as it can.

Wednesday’s projections came as hundreds of Winnipeg Blue Bombers fans prepared to crowd IG Field Wednesday evening to celebrate the team’s Grey Cup win. When asked about that gathering in light of the omicron projections, Stefanson said all attendees are required to be fully vaccinated and Roussin hadn’t raised a concern about the event.

"We’ll continue to take his advice. If that changes, based on scientific evidence, then we’ll take that advice from him moving forward," she said.

Opposition NDP Leader Wab Kinew said the government needs to call for military assistance in the hospital system, double down on its third-dose campaign and give rapid antigen tests to every person who wants one as the holiday season approaches and omicron looms large.

"If we look ahead at a holiday season and a new year where omicron is going to drive cases through the roof, given the fact that we know our hospitals are already at capacity, that’s a huge concern," Kinew told reporters at the Legislative Building.

However, Kinew said he does not anticipate an urgent response to the new variant threat and said the current pandemic situation the provincial government is in has played out "time and time again."

"I put my trust in Manitobans. I believe Manitobans will see the information that’s been put out and Manitobans will take this seriously, and unfortunately I think we can expect that there’s going to be a bit of a lag before the provincial government gets up to speed on that," he said.

— With files from Carol Sanders and Danielle Da Silva

katie.may@freepress.mb.ca

Katie May

Katie May
Reporter

Katie May is a general-assignment reporter for the Free Press.