COVID-19 restrictions might be gone this summer, but the virus isn't, Manitoba expert warns
We don't know full impact of new Omicron variants, but we do know how to lessen impact: epidemiologist
As Manitobans celebrate their first summer free of sweeping public health restrictions since the COVID-19 pandemic began, one Winnipeg epidemiologist says cases of more contagious Omicron variants could rise quickly if people forget the steps that helped keep infections at bay before.
The warmer months also come as Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada's chief public health officer, says while COVID-19 case counts are stable right now, officials are bracing for a resurgence and urging people to get their booster doses. By late summer or early fall, Tam said immune-evasive variants like BA.4 and BA.5 could become widespread.
Cynthia Carr, founder of EPI Research Inc. in Winnipeg, says we know those variants are here, but because COVID-19 has been such an unpredictable illness, it's still hard to say what another wave of cases could look like.
While the new variants already have the advantage by being more transmissible, that doesn't mean all hope is lost, she said.
"It's hard to predict how long the surge could last and what the impact will be, but it isn't hard to know that the more we reduce barriers, the more opportunity the virus will have," Carr said.
Carr said things like wearing masks indoors, being cautious when in crowds of people and getting up to date on vaccine doses this summer could make a big difference in what the situation looks like come fall.
Caution to varying degrees
Winnipegger Joan Wilton said she's staying cautious by avoiding crowds and wearing a mask to get groceries.
That's "just the precautions that we were taking when COVID was considered to be very rampant," Wilton said Wednesday.
She also just got her fourth dose of COVID-19 vaccine — something Jack Pihulak said he's done now too.
Pihulak, who got a heart transplant in 2017, said he got extremely sick when he contracted COVID-19 earlier this year. But he's still not overly concerned about the virus and said he wants to move on.
"And that's all I can do. I'm still going to live my life. I'm not going to live in a shell or in a bubble," he said.
Yared Hundie said he and his family have eased up, but still wear their masks when they think it's needed.
"I'm not worried about it anymore and I think we have to get [back to] normal," he said as his three kids played nearby.
Cases rising in other provinces
While it's hard to say exactly how many COVID-19 cases there are in the province since most Manitobans are no longer eligible for PCR testing, a provincial spokesperson said the government is watching indicators like wastewater data, outbreaks, hospitalizations and deaths — and most indicators show a decreasing trend in COVID-19 activity.
Both the BA.4 and BA.5 Omicron variants have been detected in Winnipeg's wastewater samples, with the latter comprising about 10 per cent of isolates sequenced, the spokesperson said in an email.
Thomas Linner, provincial director of the Manitoba Health Coalition advocacy group, said he's concerned the province is no longer providing regular COVID-19 briefings ahead of an expected rise in cases linked to variants.
Linner said his organization is calling on the province to release updated modelling to chart the potential path of the new variants and make PCR testing available to more Manitobans again.
He said the government also needs to establish clear benchmarks for what needs to happen for public health rules to come back in and make an expanded push for people to get all their vaccine shots ahead of the expected rise in cases.
"If we are at the point where we are seeing multiple jurisdictions being faced with new waves of COVID-19, we cannot pretend that it will not come here to Manitoba," Linner said.
"If it does come here to Manitoba, what are the choices in front of us? If we do nothing, then the choice is more and more people will die. I don't think that's acceptable. I think most Manitobans will agree with me."
The provincial spokesperson said the government continues to work with local, national and international colleagues to make sure it's making the best recommendations for Manitobans. Public health advice hasn't changed at this point, but changes will be made if required, the spokesperson said.
Epidemiologist Carr said the actions people in Manitoba take now will help shape what happens next, for better or worse.
"We're not over this yet, but we certainly have a better toolkit now," she said. "It's up to us to use it."
With files from Alana Cole, Cameron MacIntosh and Caitlyn Gowriluk