A decision to keep Manitoba's pandemic response in the critical red zone, rather than lighten up restrictions to code orange, earned cautious praise and a warning from health experts.
"I think it's a wise decision," Dr. Anand Kumar said.
The infectious disease expert and intensive care unit physician at Health Sciences Centre in Winnipeg has urged the province not to relax COVID-19 restrictions too quickly, warning it could lead to a third, deadly wave of the novel coronavirus.
At a news conference Tuesday, Premier Brian Pallister and chief provincial public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin dismissed a broad relaxation of public health orders proposed just last week, when they suggested Manitoba might move to code orange March 26.
Just one-third of last week's proposed changes to public health orders will take effect Friday and expire April 15.
"These changes… are cautious changes, and they are designed to help us move in the direction of protecting and safeguarding the well-being of Manitobans, in all respects," Pallister said.
The moves include:
- Gathering limits at outdoor public places increased to 25 people;
- Gathering limits at weddings and funerals increased to 25 people;
- Maintaining capacity limits for retail stores at 50 per cent, but increased in-store limits to 500 people (whichever is lower), with other public health measures still in effect;
- Relaxed rules for drive-in events to allow people to leave their vehicles, while still observing public health measures.
No changes will be made to the public health order that requires people returning to Manitoba to self-isolate for 14 days, Roussin said.
Manitoba will reconsider loosening restrictions after Easter and Passover, he said. For now, the province won't be allowing indoor theatres, concert halls, casinos and gaming centres to open at 25 per cent capacity or 250 people, nor allow organized team games at indoor sporting facilities.
Amidst fast-spreading COVID-19 variants, and few Manitobans vaccinated, the province isn't ready to adopt relaxed code orange restrictions, the premier said.
On Tuesday, the province announced 98 new COVID cases and said that the total number of variant cases was up to 77. The provincial test positivity rate is creeping back up over five per cent (the threshold for keeping spread of the virus under control).
"It’s correct of Pallister not to loosen up, but that’s not enough," said Prof. Amir Attaran, of the School of Epidemiology and Public Health at the University of Ottawa.
"To avoid a crushing third wave, possibly worse than the second, the province and Manitobans need to suffer through more severe restrictions to buy time until vaccination becomes extensive," said Attaran.
Manitoba is seeing cases climb, and once the B1.1.7 variant takes hold, "this growth assuredly will accelerate... (It is) evolutionarily inevitable and the consistent pattern observed elsewhere," said Attaran, who blamed the federal government for not securing a steady supply of COVID-19 vaccines.
Meanwhile, "The sooner we can get enough people vaccinated, the sooner we can reduce restrictions and get back to using our health services for the people who need them," said the premier.
Manitoba has a "pandemic pileup" of postponed surgical cases that won't be cleared until virus-related hospitalizations are under control. Pallister urged Manitobans to stick to the fundamentals for the next few weeks to flatten the COVID-19 curve, and get vaccinated as soon as they're eligible.
Pallister said the decision not to move to code orange was linked to the 32,000 responses to a recent online government survey.
"The announcement we made today is at least in part because of the input we got from Manitobans," said the premier.
Fifty-three per cent said increasing gathering limits at outdoor public spaces to 25 was appropriate, 48 per cent felt increasing the limit to 25 at weddings and funerals was the right move; and 45 per cent felt expanding retail capacity limits to 50 per cent or 500 people was appropriate.
Just 39 per cent said such changes should wait until after Easter or Passover to prevent further spread of COVID-19.
"I think these are very modest reopenings," Roussin said. "I think there will be a number of Manitobans disappointed that we're taking this cautious of an approach."
He said rising case numbers in Ontario and Saskatchewan owing to variants of concern was another reason for not reopening more quickly.
"It wouldn't be prudent at this time to go with all that we proposed," Roussin said. "To keep us on the same trajectory, to continue to loosen, we wanted to be quite cautious.
"That's why we're not changing from critical level on the pandemic response system at this point."
— with files from Danielle Da Silva
After 20 years of reporting on the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home, Carol moved to the legislature bureau in early 2020.