With much of the economy set to reopen by the end of the week, it wouldn’t take much for COVID-19 infection rates to climb again — especially now that the South African variant has been confirmed in Manitoba.
As much as Manitobans have learned to live with COVID-19, the amount of physical interaction that will be possible under the new public health orders that take effect Friday is not without substantial risk.
That’s not to say the province is moving too fast in its reopening plans. For the most part, public-health officials continue to strike the right balance between reopening the economy while protecting hospital capacity and mitigating severe disease outcomes.
The province dropped the dangerous idea of maskless workouts in gyms, which was part of last week’s initial proposal. They did not give in to pressure to allow multi-household dining in restaurants and lounges (a significant source of spread). And they largely maintained the rules around limited household gatherings (with a new household bubble allowance).
The rules aren’t perfect. There are many examples of why one type of facility can reopen and not another (movie theatres versus houses of worship, for example). However, those inequities are unavoidable as the province attempts to limit the overall number of sectors that open at the same time.
By Friday, a good deal of Manitoba’s economy will be open. All types of business other than indoor theatres, indoor concert halls, casinos and bingo halls can operate. Even with capacity and other limits, that’s not far from what existed in October when case numbers skyrocketed.
The main difference now is there is more targeted intervention around prolonged, maskless contact in indoor places. The province also has far more testing and contact-tracing resources in place to better identify and isolate cases.
Also, if cases do inch up, the damage won’t be as severe in personal-care homes, since most residents and staff in those facilities are now vaccinated. It will also be easier to protect hospital capacity now that most front-line health-care workers in acute-care settings have been immunized.
Still, it wouldn’t take much to change Manitoba's favourable trajectory.
Public-health officials quietly announced two confirmed cases of the B.1.351 variant from South Africa Tuesday, along with a sixth case of the U.K. strain.
Dr. Brent Roussin, the chief provincial public health officer, didn’t address the new variant during his news conference with Premier Brian Pallister; they focused largely on the province’s reopening plans.
Normally, Roussin would highlight something that significant and take questions on it. The fact he didn’t is troubling. It raises questions about whether the Pallister government deliberately prevented it from overshadowing its reopening announcement.
There’s no evidence the B.1.351 variant causes more severe illness. But like the one that originated in the United Kingdom — the B.1.1.7 variant, first detected in Manitoba three weeks ago — it may spread more easily. The two possibly more contagious variants represent a significant risk that didn’t exist in October.
Manitoba has done extremely well getting its case numbers down in recent weeks. The province has the lowest number of new cases per capita over the past 14 days west of New Brunswick at 77 per 100,000 people (well below the national average of 107).
The Prairie Mountain Health region, which includes Brandon, has frequently had one or no new cases per day during that period.
More importantly, hospitalizations — including the number of COVID-19 patients in intensive care — continues to slowly decline.
It shows Manitoba’s incremental reopening strategy has been successful.
There’s no reason that can’t continue, even with the further easing of restrictions and two new variants in the province.
It will depend entirely on how well Manitobans continue to adapt to the province's evolving public-health orders.
Tom has been covering Manitoba politics since the early 1990s and joined the Winnipeg Free Press news team in 2019.