Manitoba is reducing the size of holiday gatherings in the race to contain the Omicron variant, as health officials acknowledge there is community transmission of the highly infectious COVID-19 strain.
"We had an extremely disappointing holiday season last year and this one is disappointing as well," said Dr. Brent Roussin, chief provincial public health officer, at a news conference Friday afternoon. "Omicron came and we need to deal with it… We were left with little choice but to react."
These are the upcoming changes to public health orders
Changes to public health orders that take effect Tuesday at 12:01 a.m. include:
Indoor gatherings on private property: Private indoor gatherings are limited to 10 additional people plus the household if all are fully vaccinated (youth aged 12 and under are exempt). Private indoor gatherings are limited to five additional people plus the household if any of the individuals are eligible but unvaccinated (youth ages 12 and under are exempt).
Restaurants, licensed premises and food courts: These establishments will be limited to 50 per cent capacity and limited to seated service only with a maximum of 10 people per table.
Gyms/ fitness centres: Limited to 50 per cent capacity, with proof of immunization required.
Professional sports/ performing arts: Limited to 50 per cent capacity, with proof of immunization required. This includes Jets games.
Museums/ galleries/ libraries/ movie theatres/ concert halls: Limited to 50 per cent capacity, with proof of immunization required.
Faith/cultural gatherings: Limited to 50 per cent capacity with proof of vaccination, or 25 per cent capacity or a total of 25 people, whichever is lower, when proof of vaccination is not required. This applies provincewide.
Indoor sports and recreation (dance, theatre and music school): Capacity is reduced to 50 per cent for spectators.
While games and practices can continue, no tournaments will be permitted. No group activities outside of practice time
or games, come ready to play and limit group time indoors (e.g. in dressing rooms). Negative tests need to come from a participating pharmacy as provincial testing sites should only be accessed by symptomatic individuals or those who are required to take a PCR test by public health.
The variant, which is far more transmissible than the dominant Delta variant, has been detected in eight Manitobans to date.
"For the first time since we’ve had widespread vaccines, we’re imposing restrictions, even on the vaccinated," Roussin said. The new orders will take effect at 12:01 a.m. Tuesday and will remain in effect until Jan. 11.
The province will restrict indoor gatherings. If all participants are vaccinated, the gathering can include a household plus 10 visitors.
If a gathering includes an unvaccinated person, it must be limited to a household and five visitors.
Currently, fully vaccinated Manitobans and children under 12 can gather with no capacity limit.
Gyms and movie theatres will be limited to 50 per cent capacity, as will large sporting venues, including Jets games.
Churches that require proof of vaccination will be limited to half capacity, while those that do not require vaccination are limited to 25 people or 25 per cent capacity, whichever is less.
"We need to delay the emergence of Omicron to give all Manitobans time to get their third dose and reduce the demand on our health care system as much as possible," said Health Minister Audrey Gordon. "We need to ensure we have hospital beds available to care for Manitobans in need," she said.
The restrictions are necessary because vaccine effectiveness against Omicron is reduced, Roussin said.
"There’s still that benefit to being vaccinated, especially against severe outcomes, and that benefit is increased with that third dose," he said. Manitoba’s top doctor repeatedly urged Manitobans to get vaccinated, whether it’s the first, second or third dose as soon as they’re eligible. "We have to take these steps now," he said.
Manitoba reported 239 new COVID-19 cases Friday and one death, raising the pandemic death toll to 1,360.
As of Friday, Manitoba’s test positivity rate was 6.5 per cent, while Winnipeg’s was 5.5 per cent.
The province is focused on getting Manitobans vaccinated and limiting their contacts because there’s not much else that can be done to manage Omicron variant now that it’s spreading in the community.
"We need Manitobans to very significantly decrease their contacts," said Roussin.
The province will beef up staffing at vaccine super-sites while the role of contact tracing is going to be diminished, Roussin said.
"When you look at a virus that is so infectious, that has a fairly short incubation period, we need measures such as reducing contacts and vaccines to really stop it," he said. "Our contact tracing will continue, but we are making changes to focus on high-risk scenarios," he said.
“I think Omicron is a game changer. Manitoba does have the benefit of following these other jurisdictions and I know that public–health doctors are watching this closely." – Dr. Kristjan Thompson
"We are wanting to divert some resources to vaccination programs," Roussin said. "It’s much more important to have the population vaccinated," he said. They’re imposing the same new restrictions throughout the province because of the speed at which the variant spreads, he said.
"With how rapidly it spreads, a targeted or regional approach is not going to be effective," said Roussin.
The province will keep a close eye on case numbers, the test positivity rate and hospitalizations, he said.
Gordon said the province is still waiting for the federal government to respond to a request to send 15 to 30 intensive care nurses to the province.
Roussin said Manitoba had to take "decisive action in the short term," offering words of encouragement.
"We will get through this. All pandemics end. We just have to focus on the challenges as they come. We’re not helpless, we have the ability to affect the transmission of this virus," the chief provincial health officer said.
NDP Leader Wab Kinew called it "tough news" but said "it’s important we follow public health orders, get vaccinated and keep following the basics. This is hard, but we can get through it.
He said Premier Heather Stefanson should have delivered the news.
"Several things were missing from this announcement, particularly a commitment to bring in the military to shore up our hospitals, ramp up the booster campaign, increase rapid tests to compliment masking, and other measures, and of course properly enforce these rules across the province. Now is the time to show leadership."
A few hours before the new capacity limits were announced, Doctors Manitoba president Dr. Kristjan Thompson told reporters additional restrictions would be necessary to reduce the number of people in one place and slow transmission of the virus. Thompson, an ER doctor at St. Boniface Hospital, said hospitals are "on the brink" even though Omicron transmission hasn’t yet exploded in the province.
"I think Omicron is a game changer. Manitoba does have the benefit of following these other jurisdictions and I know that public-health doctors are watching this closely," he said earlier Friday.
Doctors Manitoba held the news conference to recommend people hold smaller, well-ventilated gatherings — outdoors if possible — to avoid contributing to the overloaded health-care system. It asked people to get their booster shots as soon as they’re eligible.
The perpetually stretched-thin system always seems to be in crisis mode in Manitoba, Thompson said, and now burnt-out front-line health workers are even more worried about what’s headed their way.
"We’re scared. I think we’re concerned. What we’re seeing from Omicron so far with the increased transmission rates is cause for alarm. Our ICUs are at capacity," Thompson said. "We know, and this pandemic has shown all too painfully, how limited our ability to flex, to build (capacity) and to have that surge capacity is in our health-care system in Manitoba."
— with files from Katie May
After 20 years of reporting on the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home, Carol moved to the legislature bureau in early 2020.