Manitoba's roadmap to ending COVID-19 restrictions full of holes, experts say

The province's move toward ending all pandemic-related restrictions and mandates was expected, but not so quickly and not without a plan should COVID-19 re-emerge as a threat, critics say.

'Premier's timing appears partisan and political': Manitoba Health Coalition director

Manitoba will be loosening pandemic restrictions Tuesday, with the intent to remove proof of vaccination requirements and mask mandates in March. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

The province's move toward ending all pandemic-related restrictions and mandates was expected, but not so quickly and not without a plan should COVID-19 re-emerge as a threat, critics say.

Manitoba will do away with capacity limits starting Tuesday, remove all proof of vaccination requirements on March 1 and end mask mandates by March 15, Premier Heather Stefanson and Dr. Brent Roussin, chief provincial public health officer,  announced at a news conference at the legislature on Friday morning.

"Based on the information and data monitored by public health, we are seeing strong signals that the Omicron wave has peaked and is now having a reduced impact here in Manitoba," Roussin said.

Dr. Michelle Driedger says she was caught off guard by the announcement, even though Justice Minister Kelvin Goertzen hinted at changes to public health orders Thursday.

"It came as a surprise, quite honestly, in terms of the speed at which the restrictions were being lifted and the amount that they were being lifted," said Driedger, a professor in the department of community health relations at the University of Manitoba.

She's had conversations with other physicians and believes they, too, find it surprising that all restrictions will be withdrawn in just over a month.

Thomas Linner was more direct in his criticism of the premier.

Linner, the provincial director of the Manitoba Health Coalition, a non-profit and non-partisan public advocacy group working for the protection of public health care in the province, accused Stefanson of surrendering to the demands of the vocal minority protesting outside the legislature and at the Canada-U.S. border crossing near Emerson, Man.

People block Highway 75 with heavy trucks and farm equipment, and access to the Canada-U.S. border crossing at Emerson, Man., on Thursday. (John Woods/The Canadian Press)

"It's very disappointing to see the premier appear to capitulate to extremist voices camped out in front of the legislature rather than listening to average Manitobans who are actually working in our health-care system," Linner said.

"The premier's timing appears partisan and political rather than anything to do with the health care of Manitobans."

Stefanson has denied she capitulated to the protesters.

Linner believes by choosing not to criticize the people blocking access to health-care facilities and schools, Stefanson is acting as if the province has washed its hands of the pandemic.

"We have a government that is acting as though COVID-19 is over. Just because the loudest voices — or loudest horns in Manitoba — are done with COVID-19 does not mean that this virus is done with," Linner said. "We have a lot of work to do. We need all hands on deck."

He pointed to the lengthy backlog in surgical and diagnostic procedures in Manitoba, a number that exceeded 150,000 as of Jan. 13 — one month after the province created a task force to address the problem — as well as critical staffing shortages among paramedics in rural Manitoba that he says need to be addressed before eradicating all restrictions. 

Driedger doesn't agree with Linner's view that these decisions were made as a result of protests happening in the province. However, while she thinks it's hard not to view things as Linner does, she maintains the province and public health has been "quite open and upfront" about how the pandemic has been managed.

Dr. Michelle Driedger, a University of Manitoba professor in the department of community health sciences, was surprised in the province's decision to eradicate all pandemic restrictions by March 15. (Submitted by Michelle Driedger)

"We need to make these decisions on the basis of science, on the basis of our understanding, and it could be that the science is pointing this way, and it's just kind of hitting us at a time where we're thinking, 'whoa, I don't know if we're quite ready for all of that, despite how fatigued we all might be,'" Driedger said.

She is more puzzled by a flip-flop in messaging from late December when when there was a mad scramble for COVID-19 polymerase chain reaction tests, and rapid antigen tests into January.

"I think for many Manitobans, this is going to be coming a little too fast and a little too soon," Driedger said. "We even think back to messaging that we had in December prior to our holiday break, it was get your get your booster shot. As soon as you're eligible, get kids vaccinated … making sure that parents took the time to get that done."

Concern regarding the spread of the Omicron variant was high then, but Driedger doesn't understand why the threat has already diminished to the point where we are looking to see some semblance of normalcy return to Manitoba.

She worries this decision could create negative side effects.

"We could find ourselves in an unprecedented territory soon enough as we have restrictions being lifted, changed and shifted when people at the same time might not be making those decisions around vaccines that public health has also been recommending," she said.

Dr. Julie Lajoie, a research associate working in virology and immunology at the University of Manitoba, is also worried about the lack of data from the province that shows we are more or less in the clear from COVID-19.

Dr. Julie Lajoie is a research associate at the University of Manitoba. (Thomas Asselin/Radio-Canada)

"The province needs to know what is going to happen if one of the steps brings more cases, more hospitalizations," Lajoie said. "Data, the transparency of the pattern and what will be followed should be there too, and we don't have that. And we also don't have also have the capacity of surveillance … that's a major problem of that reopening plan."

Both Manitoba NDP Leader Wab Kinew and Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont feel Friday's announcement pandered to protesters and Stefanson's political base.

"This is Premier Heather Stefanson giving in to the convoy," Kinew said. "This is capitulation, and there was nothing in today's press conference about that most important topic that we have all been making sacrifices toward for these past two years, which is our health care here in Manitoba."

With files from Sarah Petz and Cameron MacLean