Manitoba marked two milestones in its fight against COVID-19 Tuesday, offering hope restrictions could be further loosened ahead of schedule as people anticipate returning to pre-pandemic life.

Winnipeg Free Press

Delivering Crucial Information.
Right Here.

Support this work for just $3.92/week

Manitoba marked two milestones in its fight against COVID-19 Tuesday, offering hope restrictions could be further loosened ahead of schedule as people anticipate returning to pre-pandemic life.

Half of Manitoba's population has been fully vaccinated against the virus one month ahead of schedule, and the province recorded its lowest daily case count since March. Just 36 new cases were announced Tuesday: 24 in the Winnipeg health region, five in Interlake-Eastern, three in Southern Health and two each in Northern Health and Prairie Mountain. The last time daily cases were that low was March 1, when 35 cases were recorded.

Manitoba officially hit the major vaccine milestone at the end of Monday — four weeks ahead of schedule — after 16,012 doses of vaccine were administered across the province, including 2,075 first shots.

As of Tuesday, 75.1 per cent of eligible Manitobans had received at least one dose and 51.5 per cent were fully vaccinated. Manitoba also led the provinces in per capita vaccine administration as of Tuesday, according to COVID-19 Tracker Canada.

The province's phase-in reopening plan set benchmarks — 75 per cent for first dose and 50 per cent for both doses — as incentives to reopen businesses to 50 per cent capacity as of Aug. 2, the start of the Terry Fox Day long weekend.

Delta variant on rise

More than 100 new cases of the Delta novel coronavirus variant have been detected in all regions of the province since last week.

More than 100 new cases of the Delta novel coronavirus variant have been detected in all regions of the province since last week.

There were roughly 274 cases of B.1.617.2 Delta in Manitoba on July 3. As of Tuesday, there were 380 cases; about one-third of which were in the Southern Health region.

The variant is expected to become dominant in many areas around the world; it is about 50 per cent more contagious than the B.1.1.7 (Alpha), which originated in the U.K. and is currently the dominant strain.

The province has promised updated COVID-19 projections that take into account the Delta variant. On June 4, public health officials confirmed work was underway provincially and nationally to develop screening tests that can detect the Delta variant faster than genomic sequencing, which typically takes a week or more for each positive COVID-19 test result.

More than half of Manitoba's COVID-19 variant-of-concern cases remain unspecified, meaning they involve a variant, but tests haven't determined which one. As of Tuesday, "unspecified" variants accounted for 51.7 per cent of all variant-of-concern cases in the province.

— Katie May

Premier Brian Pallister has said the province will reopen more quickly if vaccination targets are reached sooner, which suggests Manitobans won't have to wait until August to see restrictions ease. Public-health officials have said they'll wait at least two weeks, COVID-19's incubation period, before easing restrictions. The first phase of the reopening began on June 26.

Although it was widely anticipated the province would hit its target early this week, provincial public health officials were not available Tuesday to comment on when Manitobans may see restrictions eased further.

Health Minister Heather Stefanson, who has returned to cabinet after taking a medical leave on May 21, was not available to be interviewed. Instead, the minister's office issued a statement to the Free Press: "The plans that will allow for the continuing reopening of the province are still being evaluated, but Minister Stefanson is pleased that Manitobans have stepped up to get vaccinated."

It's too early to ease restrictions, said a Winnipeg medical microbiologist. Dr. Philippe Lagacé-Wiens said he'd like to see the province wait at least four weeks — two incubation periods — before reopening. The target vaccination benchmarks should be higher — about 80 per cent of the population with two doses — he suggested, to account for the more contagious Delta variant, for which one dose offers less protection.

"As much as people would be very thankful and appreciative of opening up sooner, I think it's a dangerous proposition for a couple of reasons," he said. First, he said vaccination rates in certain areas of the province are still too low, particularly in the Southern health region, to guard against Delta outbreaks. Second, Manitoba has yet to see the effects of the Delta B.1617 variant on hospitalization rates, as well as the possibility of increased transmission among children under 12 who aren't eligible to be vaccinated.

"We need to see what happens as vaccine rates go up, but we probably need to achieve 80 per cent of people immunized to start to see significant protection at the community level," Lagacé-Wiens said.

On Tuesday, a spokesperson for chief provincial public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin declined to comment on achieving the vaccination target.

Instead, the spokesperson pointed to comments Roussin made on Monday in which he looked ahead to what he called a "post-pandemic Manitoba."

"We still want to get those vaccines out to those that have been unable to get vaccinated for whatever reason, but yeah, are ahead of schedule, so I think things are looking quite hopeful for Manitoba summer," he said.

The number of COVID patients who need to be hospitalized continues to decline, but the health system is still under strain.

As of Tuesday morning, there were 114 people in intensive care in Manitoba, including 36 COVID-19 patients. Pre-pandemic, Manitoba had 72 ICU beds. Another six COVID-19 patients were still receiving critical care in Ontario as of Tuesday. They were among a total of 155 Manitobans hospitalized with the virus Tuesday.

Shared Health said 11 of the 42 COVID-19 patients in intensive care were under the age of 40.

No COVID-19 patients have been transported out of province since June 9.

A man in his 70s from Southern Health was the sole COVID-19 death announced Tuesday.

katie.may@freepress.mb.ca

danielle.dasilva@freepress.mb.ca

Danielle Da Silva

Danielle Da Silva
Reporter

Danielle Da Silva is a general assignment reporter.

   Read full biography

Katie May

Katie May
Reporter

Katie May reports on courts, crime and justice for the Free Press.

   Read full biography