After four months at code red, Manitoba's premier plans to lower the COVID-19 pandemic alert level despite a rise in cases, some of which involve highly contagious variants.

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After four months at code red, Manitoba's premier plans to lower the COVID-19 pandemic alert level despite a rise in cases, some of which involve highly contagious variants.

"We're now in a position to consider moving the province to level orange, or restricted, on the pandemic-response system," Brian Pallister told a news conference Thursday, flanked by chief public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Premier Brian Pallister announces that the possibility of moving to code orange is now being discussed and they are looking for feedback from the public Thursday.</p>

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Premier Brian Pallister announces that the possibility of moving to code orange is now being discussed and they are looking for feedback from the public Thursday.

"The future is in all of our hands. If we continue to follow the advice of Dr. Roussin and public-health officials... we're going to have more good days ahead."

Roussin proposed a suite of alterations to the current public-health orders, allowing more flexible restaurant dining, the resumption of indoor organized sports, opening casinos and movie theatres and changing travel restrictions.

Indoor and outdoor gathering sizes at private residences will not change.

"The future is in all of our hands. If we continue to follow the advice of Dr. Roussin and public-health officials... we're going to have more good days ahead." — Premier Brian Pallister

"We know that during our second wave, this was a large driver of transmission," Roussin said.

The current public-health order expires March 26 and any new changes would be introduced across Manitoba.

Roussin said the province has not yet determined when new regulations will go into effect and acknowledged that gatherings during March break for students, Easter and Passover could result in a spike in cases.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Dr. Brent Roussin, chief provincial public health officer, during the COVID-19 update media conference at the Manitoba Legislative building Thursday.</p>

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Dr. Brent Roussin, chief provincial public health officer, during the COVID-19 update media conference at the Manitoba Legislative building Thursday.

Pallister and Roussin said they want to get Manitobans' feedback on when and how much to ease up on the provincewide code red announced Nov. 10.

Meanwhile, the province reported 91 new COVID-19 infections — including 33 in Winnipeg — and the death of a woman in her 60s connected to an outbreak at Portage and District General Hospital.

Since Feb. 1, about a week after the province first started loosening code-red restrictions, there have been 1,252 cases reported in Winnipeg; 69 of them — or about 5.5 per cent — have been caused by two highly contagious variant strains.

As of Thursday, the National Microbiology Lab had confirmed 76 infections in Manitoba were caused by B.1.1.7 (initially detected in the U.K.) or B.1.351 (first detected in South Africa).

The B.1.1.7 mutation is responsible for 63 cases, including two at Heritage Lodge Long Term Care in Winnipeg.

Northern Health is the lone Manitoba region that has not reported cases involving either of the mutant strains.

In Ontario, where the variants have accounted for nearly half of the recently reported cases, health officials have warned the province is moving into a third wave.

Infectious disease experts in Manitoba have also urged caution in reopening the economy too quickly and have warned renewed lockdowns could be necessary as early as May, even if variant strains do not become dominant.

Pallister acknowledged Thursday he can't be sure that the proposed rollback of restrictions won't trigger a third wave.

"One thing is certain in my mind: Manitobans are much more aware now than they were last fall," he said. "I don’t think we’re the same people now. I think we’re a lot smarter now and, sadly, that took tragedy for that lesson to be learned.

"There’s no 100 per cent in this. But I have a lot of confidence in Manitobans being able to keep doing the right things."

Changes under consideration:

● Increasing gathering limits at an outdoor public places to 25 people.

● Increasing capacity limits at weddings, funerals and other gatherings to 25 people.

● Expanding capacity at religious services to 25 per cent or 250 people, whichever is lower, with other public-health measures still in effect.

● Increasing gathering limits at an outdoor public places to 25 people.

● Increasing capacity limits at weddings, funerals and other gatherings to 25 people.

● Expanding capacity at religious services to 25 per cent or 250 people, whichever is lower, with other public-health measures still in effect.

● Expanding capacity limits for retail stores to 50 per cent or a 500 people, whichever is lower, with other public-health measures still in effect.

● Allowing people to eat at the same table with others in the indoor area of a restaurant, as long as everyone seated at a table has designated those individuals to visit them in their homes.

● Allowing organized team games at indoor sporting facilities.

● Allowing youth to not wear masks while taking part in indoor sporting activities, but requiring mask use in other areas of the facility.

● Permitting indoor theatres, indoor concert halls, casinos and gaming centres to open at 25 per cent or a 250-person capacity, whichever is lower, with other public- health measures still in effect.

● Removing the requirement to self-isolate for 14 days for interprovincial or domestic travellers who travel for business reasons and do not have symptoms.

With more residents being vaccinated every day, Roussin said he is optimistic that even if cases increase, there will be fewer people admitted to hospital than during the fall surge.

"The evidence shows that these vaccines are quite good at reducing the severe outcomes," he said, adding caution remains paramount.

He said the virus is here to stay "potentially for years to come."

"It definitely means we need to continue to learn to live with this virus, find ways to assess and limit our risk without the use of long term lockdowns," he said.

"We do expect to see increasing case numbers as we continue to open things. We always want to be taking that least restrictive approach that we can do to try to keep our numbers down."

Opposition Leader Wab Kinew told reporters Thursday that provincial contact-tracing resources need to be able to keep up as restrictions are rolled back.

Following a report by the Free Press Thursday, Kinew questioned why public health officials did not ask three Winnipeg businesses for their customer contact logs after possible COVID-19 variant exposures.

"That's certainly something that should be addressed as we're heading into the reopening," he said.

Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont was surprised to learn of the government's plan to ease restrictions and turn down the alarm volume.

"I can’t believe we’re talking about going to code orange," he said. "Our test-positivity rate is going up. We have more variants going around.… There’s a third wave happening elsewhere, and it’s well known that variants can cause a third wave.

"We need to be focused on vaccinating, vaccinating, vaccinating and focusing on getting every single dose into somebody’s arm as quickly as possible, and the government isn’t doing that."

Manitobans can provide feedback to the provincial government about the next phase of reopening at EngageMB.ca.

— with files from Carol Sanders and Michael Pereira

danielle.dasilva@freepress.mb.ca

Danielle Da Silva

Danielle Da Silva
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Danielle Da Silva is a general assignment reporter.

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