New restrictions on pause as Manitoba contemplates a 'comfortable' COVID case plateau

The re-imposition of interprovincial quarantine in January appears to have kept variants of concern in check in Manitoba. Nonetheless, the COVID infection rate remains high enough to spin out of control again, especially as variants of concern continue to spread.

Hope, public adherence and 'strategic' tinkering to public health orders touted as means of quelling 3rd wave

Dr. Jazz Atwal, Manitoba deputy chief provincial public health officer, said the province has reached a comfortable caseload plateau. The seven-day average daily case count stood at 123 on Friday, up from 115 a week earlier. (John Woods/The Canadian Press)

The pandemic situation grew so dire in Canada's most populous province this week, the third wave of COVID-19 in Ontario reached the height of the second wave in Manitoba.

On Friday, Ontario reported 4,812 new cases of COVID-19, a record for the province. Adjusted for population, that's like 450 cases in a single day in Manitoba.

Back in late November, Manitoba reported a number of daily counts in the 450-case range and higher. The seven-day average daily case count peaked at a pandemic-high 424 on Nov. 24, 2020.

The severity of the pandemic in Manitoba garnered national attention, but people outside the province were not exactly transfixed by our fate.

What happens in Ontario always looms larger, because Ontario is so much larger. 

Hence the national attention to a Friday news briefing where Premier Doug Ford announced another round of pandemic restrictions, including the barricade of non-essential traffic heading eastbound on the Trans-Canada Highway past the turnoff to West Hawk Lake.

Ontario is trying to tamp down a COVID infection rate that never quite bottomed out after the second wave and became newly inflamed when highly contagious coronavirus variants of concern arrived in Canada.

Ontario is now learning the same hard lesson Manitoba learned in the fall: It's difficult to flatten a COVID-19 surge if you start with a series of incremental restrictions instead of hammering the disease with a lockdown.

Ontario started construction of a field hospital on the grounds of Sunnybrook Heath Sciences Centre in Toronto this month. The pandemic in Ontario is now on the scale of the peak of Manitoba's second wave. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

The disease spreads exponentially if left unchecked or under-checked, as every political jurisdiction on the planet has observed since the first cases emerged in China late in 2019.

Canada's Atlantic provinces demonstrate the benefit of early, aggressive lockdowns. All four are graced with minuscule new infection rates as well as some of the least intrusive pandemic restrictions in the nation.

Canada's six other provinces are struggling with much higher infection rates, although Manitoba is doing better than the remainder of the field. As of Friday, Manitoba sported a weekly infection rate of 65 new cases per 100,000 people.

That's only one-third of Ontario's infection rate.

Quarantine a likely reason for success

The re-imposition of interprovincial quarantine in January — coupled with relatively tough indoor-dining and household-socialization rules — appears to have kept variants of concern more in check in Manitoba than anywhere else west of the Maritimes.

Nonetheless, Manitoba's infection rate remains high enough to spin out of control again, especially as variants of concern continue to spread.

This is why Chief Provincial Public Health Officer Dr. Brent Roussin promised to unveil new restrictions this week. On Monday, he mused they may include an outdoor mask mandate and the re-imposition of tougher rules governing gatherings indoors.

Yet by the end of the week, no new restrictions emerged.

Instead, deputy public health officer Dr. Jazz Atwal declared Manitoba appeared to have reached a case-count plateau, based on the fact the seven-day average case count only jumped from 115 one week earlier to 123 on Friday.

 "We're comfortable, I think, with this number. Obviously, we'd like to see it lower," Atwal said during a news briefing, explaining new restrictions can wait until early next week while the province looks over the pandemic data.

"We're comfortable right now just waiting to see where our case numbers go before we either implement what we're thinking of doing or fine-tuning it a little bit more, depending on those numbers and the epidemiology."

Atwal described the potential restrictions as strategic in nature.

"We don't want to put a whole bunch of restrictions on Manitobans. We don't want to go back to shutting everything down and we want to be very cognizant of the impacts of that, and that is a last resort," he said. 

"We are looking to see what we can fine-tune. We're hoping these numbers don't escalate."

Back to scalpel, not the sledgehammer

This notion of strategic restrictions harkens back to the early stages of the second wave, when Roussin made a series of small changes to Manitoba's public health orders in what eventually proved to be a futile effort to clamp down on the second wave.

Only a second lockdown, which included a household-only socialization rule, achieved that task after it was imposed in late November. Repeated efforts by Premier Brian Pallister to implore Manitobans to do the right thing and voluntarily heed public health advice failed in September, October and most of November.

Atwal, however, was back to making similar exhortations Friday.

"We only have to look to the provinces on either side of us to see the impacts of the third wave," he said after asking Manitobans not to hold parties, organize play dates or go for brunch together.

"We've been in this place before. We can see what is coming."

The recent past, however, appears to be less clear. Atwal insisted the incremental-restrictions strategy that failed in the second-wave fall can succeed in the third-wave spring.

"It's not an apples-to-apples comparison," he said, insisting there are more opportunities to socialize outdoors now that the weather has warmed.

We also have vaccines now, as well as variants of concern.

Atwal's words signal Manitoba is not planning to go big with restrictions next week. There is no way to tell if this decision is based on pandemic modelling conducted by Manitoba public health or the political whims of the provincial cabinet, as the deliberations of both entities are not made public.

If Atwal is correct and Manitoba can maintain the current case plateau or even lower it with only minor tweaks to public health orders, then everyone in this province will breathe a sigh of relief.

If he's wrong, and Manitoba slides back into an infection rate on par with Ontario's, then this province will have squandered some of the economic and personal sacrifices people have made to keep others safe.


Bartley Kives

Senior reporter, CBC Manitoba

Bartley Kives joined CBC Manitoba in 2016. Prior to that, he spent three years at the Winnipeg Sun and 18 at the Winnipeg Free Press, writing about politics, music, food and outdoor recreation. He's the author of the Canadian bestseller A Daytripper's Guide to Manitoba: Exploring Canada's Undiscovered Province and co-author of both Stuck in the Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg and Stuck In The Middle 2: Defining Views of Manitoba.