There’s a reason public health officials put the brakes on shifting Manitoba's pandemic alert level to orange this week. It had little, if anything, to do with the province's public consultation campaign.
Dr. Brent Roussin, chief provincial public health officer, announced Tuesday only modest changes would be made to orders when they expire Friday. The province will remain in code red.
It was a significant step.
The province was considering opening indoor theatres, casinos and gaming centres, while allowing people from two households (who were already in a designated bubble) to dine together indoors at restaurants. People travelling for business purposes to other provinces would have been exempt from the 14-day self-isolation rule upon return to Manitoba.
That’s all been postponed.
What has changed since last week?
After stabilizing for about a week, the province’s test positivity rate started inching up again in recent days, to 5.3 per cent from 4.7 per cent. It’s been rising gradually in Winnipeg for nearly two weeks.
More importantly, the number of patients in hospital with COVID-19 has started to creep up. It includes those in intensive care units, which jumped to 25, from 21, over the past week.
Those are not huge increases; hospital numbers are still well below where they were in early January. But it was enough to get the attention of the number-crunchers in Manitoba's pandemic war room.
With growing concern over highly contagious variants (which are spreading across the province and have shown up in several schools), it became obvious the benefits of maintaining most restrictions outweighed the costs of keeping them in place.
It had little to do with the province’s public consultations, despite claims to the contrary by Premier Brian Pallister.
The government's online surveys are mostly public relations exercises. While they may have some benefit in getting buy–in from Manitobans, they have little impact on what is ultimately decided.
The government's online surveys are mostly public relations exercises. While they may have some benefit in getting buy-in from Manitobans, they have little impact on what is ultimately decided.
That’s left largely to public health experts, as it should be.
However, the current orders are not necessarily set in stone for the next three weeks. Changes could be made after the Easter weekend, if the data supports it, said Roussin.
If the test positivity rate stabilizes and hospital numbers fall or plateau, the province could — and should — ease restrictions further before orders expire April 15. It wouldn’t be the first time it has done so (March 12: loosening the rules for churchgoers and restaurant patio customers).
What government does have to start talking about publicly is what percentage of the population has to be vaccinated before the majority of restrictions are removed. So far, no such projections have been released.
Once people over age 65-70 are immunized, which restrictions will be rolled back?
There will be other factors to consider when making those decisions. However, if case numbers, infection rates and hospitalization numbers remain relatively stable, the province should have some idea what restrictions will be lifted once the vast majority of Manitoba’s most vulnerable are immunized.
Businesses and not-for-profits need to know; they need to figure out how long they can stay solvent.
Health officials say herd immunity will be achieved once 70 to 80 per cent of the public is vaccinated. Surely government will not wait that long before removing most restrictions.
There would be no reason to. Severe outcomes from COVID-19 can be mitigated and hospital capacity protected once the vast majority of elderly Manitobans and those with underlying health conditions are vaccinated.
For now, with only nine per cent of Manitoba’s adult population having been vaccinated, restrictions are still the main tool to protect hospitals and prevent death.
It was the right move to leave current measures in place.
Tom has been covering Manitoba politics since the early 1990s and joined the Winnipeg Free Press news team in 2019.