Mixed reactions to new COVID-19 rules as Manitoba hits highest infection rate among provinces

Reactions have been mixed so far to Manitoba’s latest public health orders targeting kids in sports, hospital capacity and unvaccinated churchgoers in the southern part of the province.

As of Friday, Manitoba’s weekly average rose to 12 cases a day per 100,000 people, surpassing Saskatchewan

A health-care worker at a drive-thru site administers a COVID-19 test through the window of a vehicle. As of Friday, Manitoba is again the hot spot among Canada's province's for new infections. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Reactions have been mixed so far to Manitoba's latest public health orders targeting kids in sports, unvaccinated churchgoers in the southern part of the province and hospital capacity.

But for many, one thing is certain: as Manitoba again becomes the COVID-19 hot spot among Canada's provinces, something needs to be done.

The middle province secured that title on Friday, when its running seven-day average of new cases per 100,000 people rose to 84 a week — or 12 cases per 100,000 people a day. The province previously became Canada's COVID-19 hot spot during the third wave in May.

The next highest provincial rate is currently in neighbouring Saskatchewan, which as of Friday had a seven-day case rate of 79 per 100,000 people.

For now, however, Saskatchewan still has a higher 14-day case rate (172 per 100,000) than Manitoba (146).

Manitoba now has the highest seven-day rate of COVID-19 cases among Canadian provinces, with a rate of 84 cases per 100,000 people. (Government of Canada)

With Manitoba's cases rising most rapidly among people under 20, some say it makes sense that new rules announced by the province Friday target kids over 11 who aren't yet vaccinated.

Starting Dec. 6, anyone age 12 to 17 will have to have proof of at least one COVID-19 vaccine dose — or a negative rapid test result from the past 72 hours — to play indoor sports in Manitoba.

"I guess we're not that surprised. There has been some indication that there has been some spread through youth sport activities," Janet McMahon, president and CEO of Sport Manitoba, said following Friday's announcement.

Janet McMahon is the president and CEO of Sport Manitoba, which oversees about 70 sport organizations across the province. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

Sport Manitoba oversees about 70 different organizations across the province, all of which are eager to do what they can to make sure they can keep operating safely, said Janet McMahon, the organization's president and CEO.

McMahon said the province has indicated the percentage of eligible kids who are already vaccinated is quite high, so she's optimistic the mandate won't have a major impact on sports that are already underway.

Parent Courtney Blocker is among those who are glad to see the new measures.

His 12-year-old daughter plays hockey in Winnipeg, and he approves of safety precautions to keep her and her teammates safe.

"There's been experiences where teams have had outbreaks at hockey arenas, so it happens. We just have to do what we can to protect them," he said.

Peter Woods, executive director of Hockey Manitoba, said while he guesses more than 80 per cent of his organization's members are already immunized against COVID-19, the new rules will affect those still unsure about getting the jab.

He said Hockey Manitoba is supportive of the new rules, but he still expects to get some pushback from unvaccinated parents.

Currently, Manitoba's public health order says anyone who is 18 or older must be vaccinated to enter an indoor sports or recreational facility.

Peter Woods is the executive director of Hockey Manitoba. He says he's preparing for pushback from some parents over the new rules. (CBC)

Some parents, though, might argue they should have the option of getting tested instead of proving they're vaccinated, like their kids will have, Woods said.

Since those tests have to be done at pharmacies, they may be hard to access for people in some areas, Woods said.

"That could create some problems and there could be a fallout," he said.

"Some kids will probably step away from the sport."

Meanwhile, the principal of Maples Collegiate in Winnipeg said he's glad the province finally brought in a vaccine mandate so it doesn't fall to individual school divisions to introduce their own rules.

"I think it's a smart move to keep our kids safe and also to move forward to get back to the normalcy that we're all trying to get to," Scott Shier said.

Church rules in effect

The new public health orders also cut down gathering sizes for religious events in the Southern Health region that don't require proof of vaccination from attendees.

The new rules in that part of Manitoba, which has some of the province's lowest vaccination rates and highest test positivity rates, kicked in Saturday at midnight.

The mayor of Winkler said the new restrictions might be difficult for people who rely on church services in the region. But he hopes to see the southern Manitoba city's churches — and people — follow the rules.

"Personally, I think the churches need to step up to the plate as well and say, 'Yeah, we will comply,' and not skirt the system, because I think that only adds to the problem," Martin Harder said on Saturday.

"I would appreciate some grace for our community and just want to make sure that they realize we're working together to try and get to the end game."   

Winkler Mayor Martin Harder says he hopes his city's churches comply with the new rules. (Rudy Gauer/CBC)

Strained ICUs

Manitoba's latest pandemic measures also include cancelling some surgeries starting next week to free up more space in the province's strained intensive care units.

One ICU doctor says the new rules are welcome measures as the province sees a surge in COVID-19 patients landing in critical care — but they're still likely not enough.

"The problem is that there is [less] ICU bed capacity now than there was when we had to flex up tremendously at the time of the third wave," said Dr. Eric Jacobsohn, an attending physician at St. Boniface Hospital and Health Sciences Centre in Winnipeg.

"Can we sustain another massive increase? It's difficult to imagine how."

Dr. Eric Jacobsohn, a Winnipeg ICU physician, said the new rules are welcome but likely still not enough to do what's needed. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

He said the province needs to prepare for the worst and communicate that plan with health-care staff better than it did in the pandemic's third wave.

"[It] is again appearing that what exactly the plans are and how to engage the front-line health-care workers is going to be ad hoc again, one day at a time — which is perplexing, to say the least," Jacobsohn said.

With files from Erin Brohman, Austin Grabish, Bartley Kives and Zoé Le Gallic-Massie