The provincial government followed through on plans to loosen public health restrictions despite hearing concerns from a group of experienced physicians.
A group of about five doctors wrote a letter to the premier earlier this month outlining their concerns; they requested more information about the province's vaccine rollout plans and cautioned against reopening businesses and household gatherings too early. This week, after the province had already sought public opinion and all but promised to reduce restrictions, the doctors met with Health Minister Heather Stefanson to reiterate their position and offer to help with vaccination planning.
One of them, Dr. Dan Roberts, an acting head of neurology at Health Sciences Centre, said Thursday he understands the pressure officials faced to reopen the economy. The new rules taking effect Saturday show a "moderate approach" to loosening restrictions, he said, but urged Manitobans to follow the previous rules by limiting their in-person contacts and not gathering in places such as shopping malls.
"The essential issue right now is that people understand what the risks are, and they have to make individual decisions about what restrictions they're going to impose on their own behaviour. And I would strongly suggest that people at risk keep on doing what they've been doing, and maintaining the restrictions that were imposed before, which have worked in reducing COVID cases, but it took 10 weeks," Roberts said.
He said there's still "imminent risk" of spreading the virus, especially with new, more contagious strains of it starting to circulate in Canada. Roberts said he wasn't going to "second-guess" the government's decision to loosen the rules.
"They've maintained some level of restriction, which is OK, but I think that we just have to wait and see what happens. I think it's early to reduce some of the restrictions. We've still got a test positivity rate that's approaching 10 per cent, so there's still a lot of disease out there."
He said Stefanson was "receptive" to hearing from the doctors during their meeting. A spokesperson for Stefanson's office said it was a "constructive and positive discussion" but didn't address questions about whether the health department will act on the doctors' concerns.
Medical microbiologist Dr. Philippe Lagacé-Wiens, who was not one of the doctors who met with Stefanson earlier this week, said his key public message on the loosened restrictions is "just because you can doesn't mean you should."
If done properly, allowing Manitobans to have two designated visitors over, and even opening up hair salons and personal-health services with mandatory masking and capacity limits, is not likely to cause large spikes in the COVID-19 infection rate, Lagacé-Wiens said. But he is leery of reopening non-essential shopping in big box stores and malls, where lots of people can gather even with restricted capacity.
"I might have preferred a little less loosening in that particular area, but understanding that small businesses are probably low-risk and they're kind of getting desperate, that side of it is probably reasonable given the current positivity rates in the south," he said.
He strongly suggested people should still do curbside pickup where possible, and wear masks and maintain physical distancing with their visitors, since most of the viral transmission that can be traced in Manitoba is coming from household gatherings and workplaces.
"It's not just an open invitation to have a dinner party with another couple. I think we have to keep in mind that we're still in the midst of a pandemic here."
Katie May reports on courts, crime and justice for the Free Press.