Manitoba expected to lift most pandemic capacity limits

Manitoba is about to relax its pandemic rules for the third time in just under six weeks, and all indications suggest the province will soon be under the least restrictive public health orders since September 2020.

Manitobans who fear or desire an Alberta-style elimination of all COVID-19 mitigation measures are in for relief or disappointment: Some restrictions will remain.

At 11 a.m., Premier Brian Pallister and Chief Provincial Public Health Officer Dr. Brent Roussin are expected to announce pandemic rules will ease further in this province on Saturday.

The premier has been absent from public view for several weeks. 

Pallister has not spoken since July 15, when a disastrous debut by his new minister responsible for reconciliation plunged the Progressive Conservative government deeper into a crisis over residential school denialism.

Roussin last spoke on July 26, when he promised it would take at least another two weeks for Manitoba Public Health to predict how the more contagious delta variant may spread this fall, along with the flu and respiratory syncytial virus, better known as RSV.

Based on comments made earlier this summer, Pallister and Roussin are expected to announce the elimination of capacity limits for most Manitoba businesses and gatherings.

The elimination of capacity limits was supposed to kick in once the province met its Labour Day vaccination targets of getting one dose into the arms of 80 per cent of Manitobans age 12 and up and two doses into the arms of 75 per cent.

Both milestones will be met early. The province is on track to meet its first-dose target at or near the end of this week and the two-dose target no later than Aug. 15.

As of July 30, 79.5 of the eligible population had one dose and 69.3 per cent had two doses.

Dr. Brent Roussin has not addressed the public since July 19. Premier Brian Pallister has not addressed the public since July 15. (John Woods/The Canadian Press)

It is reasonable for Dr. Roussin to jump the relaxation gun by a couple of days or weeks, especially since vaccination targets alone do not govern the relaxation of public health measures.

All of the measures are looking good.

Late last week, the seven-day average daily COVID-19 case count in Manitoba hovered around a tolerable 35. The provincial test positivity rate sat just above two per cent. The number of COVID-19 patients in hospital was down below 100 and the number of COVID patients in ICUs was dropping as well.

Even more importantly, Manitoba is the only province outside the Maritimes where the infectiousness of COVID-19 is not an immediate concern. Right now, the average Manitoban with COVID-19 is infecting less than one other person.

The reproduction rate for the disease is over one in Quebec, Ontario, B.C., Saskatchewan and Alberta. This unwelcome development has led epidemiologists such as the University of Toronto’s David Fisman to declare the fourth wave of COVID-19 has started in five out of the six largest provinces.

This does not mean Manitoba has nothing to fear. While we were the last province in Canada to experience a third wave, that wave turned out to extract a terrible toll on the health-care system when it finally arrived. 

There is no reason to suggest Manitoba will avert the fourth wave that’s currently ripping through the United States, where the delta variant is spreading quickly among the unvaccinated — and infecting some vaccinated people as well.

While Manitoba enjoys a relatively high vaccination rate, there remain pockets of the province where non-immunized people outnumber the immunized. And in five weeks, elementary schools will host the largest gatherings of unvaccinated people in the province.

It is fair to assume public health is modelling how elementary schools and southern Manitoba communities like Winkler could function as potential COVID-19 vectors during a delta-driven fourth wave.

This is why it is unlikely to see Pallister and Roussin announce the end of the province’s indoor mask mandate this morning. Mask mandates are likely to stay in place until sometime this fall, after public health officials have had a chance to see what the fourth wave looks like.

Members of Alberta’s medical community who are unhappy with the province’s plan demonstrate in Calgary on Friday. There was also a protest at the legislature in Edmonton. (CBC)

Alberta and Saskatchewan are not waiting. Both provinces are in the process of eliminating most pandemic restrictions, even as COVID-19 becomes more infectious within their borders.

Manitoba is expected to keep masks, mandatory isolation for those with COVID-19 and vaccination perks for several more weeks or even months. 

This province doesn’t have much of a choice.

After failing to mitigate Canada’s deadliest second wave and proving incapable of handling the patient burden of a severe third wave, Manitoba may lack the resilience to suffer through another ICU crisis and the renewed restrictions that would trigger.

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