Three more Manitobans have been slapped with fines for allegedly breaking COVID-19 self-isolation orders, and with the province in the early stages of its third pandemic wave, public health experts say tolerance for restrictions is waning.
Between April 5 and 11, officers responsible for enforcing COVID-19 prevention orders issued 13 tickets to people who were found flouting the law, the province said, including three $1,296 tickets given to people who failed to self-isolate as required under the provincial Public Health Act.
Another three tickets were given to people who violated gathering sizes, one was issued for unnecessary travel to northern Manitoba, five tickets were given to people for not wearing a mask in an indoor public place and 100 warnings were issued, the province said.
Dr. Louis Francescutti, a professor at the School of Public Health at the University of Alberta, said the public’s compliance with health orders appears to be slipping as the pandemic picks up momentum across Canada.
"I think six months ago, the public was fatigued. Now they’re basically ignoring it and as we’re heading into the worst wave yet," Francescutti said. "This is when people are really letting their guard down as summer is coming. You could not have created a more perfect storm for this thing to not go away in the near term."
The Edmonton emergency room physician said public buy-in for health orders can be influenced by the perceived chance someone might be caught while breaking the rules and whether or not scofflaws face consequences.
"If the likelihood is kind of low, chances are good you’re going to go ahead and do it because you’ve done it all your life, you don’t believe that it’s a real issue, you don’t know anyone who’s gotten COVID and you’ve never seen a really sick COVID patient," he said. "By now, everyone’s been desensitized."
Earlier this week, chief provincial public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin said many new COVID-19 infections in Manitoba can be traced back to behaviour or events that break public health orders.
The top doctor said people sick with COVID-19 are reporting a high number of close contacts and some have held "larger gatherings'' in private residences, including play dates, house parties and sleepovers. Provincial data show that earlier this month, one person sick with COVID-19 had as many as 57 close contacts.
The virus has been spread by travellers who have not self-isolated on their return to Manitoba and by those who don't recognize very mild symptoms as COVID-19, Roussin said. Last week, five separate households were exposed to the virus because someone returned from Western Canada without quarantining, he said.
"We continue to see transmission in all of our concerning places. This is that prolonged, indoor contact," Roussin said.
On Tuesday, the province said it could not confirm whether any of the tickets issued were related to inter-provincial travel.
The data released Tuesday show a decline in the number of tickets issued by enforcement officers compared with the past three weeks, even as daily case counts have moved back into the triple digits, with 135 new infections reported.
Since enforcement of public health orders can be a challenge for governments that do not want to alienate their population or have orders that are difficult to enforce, Francescutti said to achieve good compliance with public health orders, governments must first earn public trust.
"The sooner you can start sharing what information you have with the public so that the public knows you’re being open and transparent, the more likely they are to want to be part of the team working towards the solution," he said. "But if you let politics get involved, and you try and minimize the severity of what’s actually going on, then the public gets confused. They don’t know if you’re playing games or not playing games, they don’t know when to take you seriously, or not take you seriously."
In the past month, provincial data show 14 tickets have been given to people for failing to self-isolate. Two tickets have been given under the federal Quarantine Act, which requires international travellers to self-isolate on arrival to the country.
Fifty tickets have been given to people for exceeding gathering size limits and seven tickets have been issued to businesses. Another 24 tickets were issued to people not wearing masks in indoor public places.
Rather than step up reactive enforcement efforts — such as ticketing scofflaws — to combat pandemic fatigue and indifference to public health orders, a sustained and persuasive messaging campaign could be launched to proactively improve compliance and build public trust, the doctor said.
"You need really high-level catchy, powerful in-your-face campaigns that are sustained over a period of time and that are measured as well," he said.
Dr. Philippe Lagacé-Wiens, a medical microbiologist at the St. Boniface Hospital, said many Manitobans have bought in to the public health interventions introduced since the start of the pandemic last spring.
But as the province considers introducing new or increased restrictions to handle mounting COVID-19 case counts, Lagacé-Wiens said clear messaging accompanied by evidence and data to support the decisions of public health will be necessary to get Manitobans on board.
"So when public health goes on TV and says 'well, we're going to do this,' that won't get buy-in alone," Lagacé-Wiens said. "I think a lot of focus needs to be made on the justification, and there is justification, so it should be out there.
"I think the bottom line is clear, accurate, justifiable messaging. So you need to say why we're doing this, not just, we're doing this, he said. "You need to be authoritative, not authoritarian."
Since last April, the provincial government said 3,683 warnings and 1,159 tickets have been issued in Manitoba.
— with files from Katie May
Danielle Da Silva
Danielle Da Silva is a general assignment reporter.