Manitoba reopening plans initiated prematurely, say experts

Manitoba is set to take a step toward the elimination of all pandemic-related restrictions, with an eye toward spring.

Dr. Brent Roussin says province is planning for a pandemic restriction-free Manitoba by spring

Winnipeg Exchange District in June 2020. Manitoba is initiating steps to be restriction-free by spring. (Lyzaville Sale/CBC)

Manitoba is set to take a step toward the elimination of all pandemic-related restrictions, with an eye toward spring.

Premier Heather Stefanson said conditions are improving and therefore the province will ease up on some of the rules that are currently in place, but others in the health community believe the decision is slightly premature.

Stefanson, who addressed reporters at a news conference Wednesday afternoon alongside Chief Provincial Public Health Officer Dr. Brent Roussin, announced new public health orders will come into effect starting Feb. 8.

"We are seeing some positive trends in the data throughout the province, indicating that COVID-19 is starting to stabilize in our province as those trends continue," Stefanson said.

Dr. Brent Roussin, Manitoba's chief provincial public health officer, says the province is aiming for a restriction-free Manitoba by spring. (Ian Froese/CBC)

Roussin noted that throughout the pandemic, restrictions have been put in place for temporary measures. However, there appears to be a glimmer of light at the end of Manitoba's COVID-19 tunnel.

"The vast majority of Manitobans have done their part and gotten vaccinated, and we all know that our path forward must be one to continue to remove these public health orders over time — but in obviously a cautious manner," Roussin said.

Experts caution of reopening too early

While vaccination uptake is one of the tools the province is using to help slow the spread of COVID-19, Dr. Jason Kindrachuk, a virologist and Canada Research Chair at the University of Manitoba, believes vaccines aren't the only measure Manitoba needs to use to ensure citizens are protected.

There is wastewater and hospitalization data, the latter of which Kindrachuk says is lagging, but he doesn't think the province has provided a good assessment on case numbers and notes polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing has been limited for the past few weeks.

"We want to be cautious. We want to be appreciative that people want to get back to normal, and certainly we need to," Kindrachuk said. 

"But we also need to be very cognizant of the fact that this virus will burn very, very quickly if we give it enough oxygen."

We are certainly working on the virus's schedule — not the other way around.​​​​- Jason Kindrachuk

Admittedly cautious at the best of times, Kindrachuk isn't surprised the province is moving in the direction of lessening restrictions with the hope having removing them entirely. He simply wants to be prepared in case another variant of concern rears its ugly head.

Jason Kindrachuk, a virologist and Canada Research Chair at the University of Manitoba, says we need to be prepared for new virus variants. (Zoom)

If the situation changes, there is a need to be as fluid as possible and "change on a dime," Kindrachuk said.

"I would like to see us have all of our arsenal present to be able to gauge where we are at any given time."

Initiating a plan where restrictions are a thing of the past by the time snow melts and flowers begin to bloom isn't something the virus is just going to allow us to do, he says.

"The virus doesn't care what our timetable is. This is not some sort of a conscious organism that we're dealing with," Kindrachuk said.

"We are certainly working on the virus's schedule — not the other way around."

'Seems a bit premature': Shaw

Souradet Shaw, an assistant professor in the department of community health services at the University of Manitoba, believes the province's reopening plans are premature. (Shelley Shaw)

Like Kindrachuk, Souradet Shaw, an assistant professor for the department of community health services at the University of Manitoba, also thinks it's too early to plan stages for reopening the province.

"It seems a bit premature to be on a path to reopen things, particularly as we've lost all situational awareness when it comes to knowing where our cases are coming from, who is most affected, and what the transmission chains are," Shaw, who is also the Canada research chair in program science and global public health for the Institute for Global Public Health, said in an email to CBC News.

"Hospitalizations are at an all-time high, and ICUs have not yet peaked — so the timing is curious."

In addition to the sustained strain on Manitoba's health-care system, Shaw's biggest fear is that prematurely opening up could put the province back on the path to school closures.

Neither Stefanson or Roussin revealed any data specifics, but Roussin believes the pandemic's Omicron wave, which is widespread in Manitoba, has peaked.

"Based on from what we're seeing from things like hospital admissions and case reports, and looking at absenteeism rates from different sectors, we do see it's very likely that we've hit a peak in Manitoba for case generation," he said.

No specific roadmap is in place, but the message Roussin conveyed to Manitobans is to prepare for a normal spring.

"I think the message is that given where we are right now, if we don't see anything unexpected, that we're looking at a restriction-free Manitoba by spring," he said.

With files from Bartley Kives


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