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Manitobans should have a better idea by the end of the week whether the province will ease restrictions after public-health orders expire Jan. 22. So far, it’s looking promising.

Friday marks the end of a two-week period after the holidays. That’s the time it usually takes for people infected with COVID-19 to show symptoms. By then, the province will have reliable data on how social gatherings over Christmas and New Year’s Eve impacted the spread of the virus.

There was a bump in case numbers two weeks after Christmas Day. But infections are falling again, albeit slowly. The number of people in hospital with COVID-19 has also declined.

The long-term trend (between early November, when Manitoba began its code-red restrictions, and now) is also encouraging: case numbers, test-positivity rates and hospitalizations are all down. They are nowhere near as low as they were prior to Thanksgiving, but they continue to trend in the right direction.

The number of working hours health-care staff lost due to sickness — about 102,000 hours over the last two-week period — has also declined. It's an important indicator of hospital capacity. That figure is down 10,000 hours from a peak in late November. It’s still higher than the five-year average for that period (85,000 hours), but it’s improving.

"Today’s numbers are encouraging," chief provincial public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin said Monday, who sounded more upbeat than he did last week when reviewing post-holiday data.

Roussin released data last week that showed many Manitobans violated public-health orders by gathering outside their households. Despite that, there hasn’t been a major spike in case numbers.

That could change. Figures are still coming in from New Year’s celebrations. Roussin said there were close to 3,000 close contacts over the holidays identified so far, some of which will likely become cases. Data released over the next few days will paint a clearer picture.

There are still troubling signs the virus is circulating at high levels, especially in northern communities. Manitoba’s test-positivity rate remains high at 10 per cent. (Although it’s fallen to 8.8 per cent in Winnipeg — the lowest it’s been since early November).

There are threats around us: case numbers in other parts of Canada are soaring, including in Ontario and Quebec. Three new, more contagious variants have been identified around the world, some of which have shown up in Canada (but not Manitoba).

None of those factors can be ignored.

Still, if cases and hospitalization numbers continue to fall this week, it's expected the Pallister government will ease some restrictions beginning Jan. 23.

Roussin says the province plans to survey Manitobans to find out what their priorities are on a proposed reopening plan. He said not everything can reopen at once; the province will have to make choices on what restrictions remain in place.

Small business should be at the front of the line. They have borne the greatest brunt of the lockdown (in many cases with little to no evidence that the virus was circulating in their places of business). It doesn’t mean bars and restaurants should resume normal business. But if the numbers warrant, shuttered retailers should be allowed to resume in-store operations with limited capacity. They have suffered the most economically and deserve relief.

What should not change is the ban on socializing between households. That should be one of the last restrictions lifted. It’s done the most damage, in part because the province was slow to respond to it.

It’s still too early to tell whether restrictions should be lifted at all. Hospitals remain over capacity and Manitoba’s COVID-19 case fatality rate continues climb as a percentage of the national average. The province needs to see a consistent decline in case numbers, the test-positivity rate and hospitalizations over the next week before relaxing any rules.

So far, the data looks positive.

tom.brodbeck@freepress.mb.ca

Tom Brodbeck

Tom Brodbeck
Columnist

Tom has been covering Manitoba politics since the early 1990s and joined the Winnipeg Free Press news team in 2019.

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