Slight changes to gathering sizes and retail business capacity limits are Manitoba's "last chance" to reduce COVID-19 case counts before stricter rules have to be implemented, the province's top doctor said Monday.

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Slight changes to gathering sizes and retail business capacity limits are Manitoba's "last chance" to reduce COVID-19 case counts before stricter rules have to be implemented, the province's top doctor said Monday.

Doctor's orders

As of 12:01 a.m. Tuesday, the following restrictions will be in place. The restrictions are in effect until May 12.

As of 12:01 a.m. Tuesday, the following restrictions will be in place. The restrictions are in effect until May 12.

— All households can have only two designated visitors indoors; Before the change, two households were allowed to form a bubble together and visit each other.

— Outdoor gatherings on public and private property will be limited to a maximum of 10 people, including household members; Before the change, one household plus 10 people were allowed to gather on private property, and 25 people were allowed to gather on public property.

— Faith-based gatherings will be limited to 25 per cent capacity or 50 people, whichever is lower, with indoor mask orders in place except while household groups are seated at a service, are appropriately distanced from other groups and are not singing; The slight change reduces maximum capacity to 50 people rather than 100 people.

— Weddings and funerals will be reduced to 10 people, in addition to an officiant and photographer. Before the change, 25 attendees were allowed.

— Personal-care home workers who've already been vaccinated are now allowed to work in more than one facility. Last spring, in response to deadly outbreaks within the homes, the province issued public-health orders to prohibit staff from moving between homes. That requirement is no longer in effect for vaccinated workers.

As of Wednesday (April 21), at 12:01 a.m. the following additional public health order will come into effect:

— Retail store capacity will be limited to one-third of the store or up to 333 people, whichever is lower. Shopping malls will be limited to 33 per cent of the facility’s capacity. Before the change, capacity limits were set at 50 per cent or 500 people.

Fine-tuned public-health orders, promised last week, will limit indoor gatherings to two designated people, and further restrict outdoor gathering sizes and retail store capacity. None of the changes requires businesses to shut down, schools to close or people to wear masks outdoors (although outdoor masks are still recommended).

"We had significant restrictions in place as of now, so we've bolstered them with this. We see that our numbers are climbing so we needed to do more. And I think this is a measured response right now, but I do think from a public-health perspective, this really is our last shot at reducing our numbers before we do need to move into more of a lockdown scenario," Dr. Brent Roussin said Monday.

"We cannot overwhelm our health-care system, and so we are at risk of that if our numbers continue to climb at the pace they are. So this is our chance right now to change that trajectory."

The changes were made because public-health officials projected case numbers would grow by at least 50 per cent week over week without tightened rules, largely because of the spread of highly contagious strains of the virus.

Manitoba isn't entering into a lockdown, closing its borders or requiring masks in church as long as people sit far enough apart.

When asked why the province isn't implementing lockdown measures now considering surging infection rates in neighbouring provinces, the rise in highly contagious variants and the pace of the vaccine rollout, Premier Brian Pallister said Manitobans have largely followed strict rules and the post-Easter and Passover spike in cases here was "fractional compared to other provinces."

"Manitobans don't deserve a lockdown because Manitobans did the right things, but they do deserve to have a long-term sense that we're moving in the right direction," Pallister said, referring again to the pandemic as a "marathon."

Pallister said Manitoba has been "relatively speaking, an oasis" during this pandemic, not as hard-hit as other places, and there's a real concern Manitobans may be complacent about following tighter rules.

"If you want to get away from these rules, then follow the rules now, because if you don't, they're going to be here longer, unfortunately," Pallister said.

COVID-19 hospitalizations are already on the rise here, although they're considered a lagging indicator of the virus's spread. Case counts aren't as high now as they were before tightened restrictions were imposed in the fall during the second wave. In October 2020, the daily average COVID-19 case count in Manitoba reached 120. That number was 98 between March 15 to April 15, the month public-health officials acknowledged the arrival of the third wave.

On Monday, 108 COVID-19 infections were reported, and the test-positivity rate was 5.7 per cent, both in Winnipeg and across the province. More infectious strains of the virus account for roughly two-thirds of all cases in Winnipeg. Also Monday, 132 patients were in hospital receiving treatment for COVID-19, including 30 in intensive care.

"It was definitely time to do something. The real underlying question is, was what's been now suggested enough?" said Dr. Philippe Lagacé-Wiens, medical microbiologist at St. Boniface Hospital. He said he is "underwhelmed" by the new restrictions. They could be enough to curb the third wave, he said, but only if everyone follows them.

"The way human behaviour is, I almost am starting to believe that a hard, circuit-breaker-type lockdown is necessary just to bring those numbers down to the point where they can be more easily managed and contact-traced. To try to take this more moderate approach, because not everybody's going to follow it, will probably not result in the control of the numbers that they're looking for."

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS </p><p>Dr. Brent Roussin, chief provincial public health officer, announces changes to health restrictions at press conference at the Legislative Building on Monday.</p></p>

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Dr. Brent Roussin, chief provincial public health officer, announces changes to health restrictions at press conference at the Legislative Building on Monday.

As Ontario's intensive-care units overflow with COVID-19 patients, Pallister said Manitoba has issued a "call to action" to retired nurses to re-register to help out in Ontario. The province is also in talks to send ventilators and other equipment to Ontario. When asked what Manitoba is doing to strengthen its own health-care workforce during the third wave, Pallister said the province has "taken steps to do that" and will continue, "but I don't think it's fair to disregard the needs of a neighbour at any time."

In an interview on Friday, deputy chief public health officer Dr. Jazz Atwal said Manitoba could avoid a situation similar to what's happening in Ontario. That province, he said, reacted too late.

"Just because something is rising doesn't mean it won't plateau, but if we don't behave properly, if we don't adhere to the orders, if we don't stay at home when we're sick, don't send your kids to school when you're sick or your kids are sick or go get tested, we will run into further trouble," Atwal said.

He described the "window of opportunity" Manitobans have now.

"The worst-case scenario is a complete lockdown. That might have to happen. We are trying to do what we can to make sure that doesn't happen, and this is where the callout is to Manitobans, is we don't want to go there. So let's do what we can so that doesn't happen. We have a window of opportunity here, but again, it's going to be about all Manitobans doing what they need to do to limit those interactions, to mitigate that risk and to adhere to the messaging," Atwal said.

— With files from Danielle Da Silva

katie.may@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @thatkatiemay

Katie May

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