Manitoba public health officials predict most restrictions will be lifted by Labour Day so long as 80 per cent of Manitobans are partially vaccinated against COVID-19.
Premier Brian Pallister and chief provincial public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin revealed the government’s "One Great Summer Reopening Path" on Thursday and explained the incremental rollback of pandemic measures as vaccination rates increase.
"The goal is to get to a post-pandemic Manitoba where we have public health recommendations and not restrictions," Roussin said. "When we can necessarily achieve that? We need flexibility.
"But this plan outlines that we’re going to be seeing this phased approach heading towards that direction," Roussin said. "We are going to be lifting restrictions in a phased approach, and everywhere."
However, the strategy doesn't specify which measures could be pulled back or when. Rather, the province has chosen three summer holidays and corresponding vaccination targets to guide its plan.
By Canada Day, businesses, services, and facilities can open at 25 per cent capacity if more than 70 per cent of eligible Manitobans are partially vaccinated against COVID-19, and more than 25 per cent are fully vaccinated.
Capacity restrictions will be rolled back to 50 per cent by Terry Fox Day if more than 75 per cent of Manitobans have a first dose and more than 50 per cent have a second. By Labour Day, "very limited" restrictions will be in place if 80 per cent of people are partially vaccinated, and 75 per cent are fully vaccinated.
Roussin was asked to describe the new freedoms Manitobans can expect as vaccination targets are reached, but the top doctor declined to discuss the finer points.
"We intentionally left some flexibility in the plan, but the goal is that if we get these vaccine targets we can start moving forward with these type of openings, with these capacity limits fairly broadly," Roussin said.
The doctor said his team will announce changes to the public health orders one week in advance of vaccination targets. COVID-19 infection rates, test positivity, and hospital admissions also have to be low or in decline.
Current public health orders expire six days before the Canada Day target of partially vaccinating 70 per cent of Manitobans, and fully vaccinating 25 per cent.
Asked about the plan's lack of details, Pallister suggested he did not want to make commitments that couldn’t be kept.
"The choices other provinces made were to be less specific on the criteria and more specific on the potential freedoms. Then as you’ve seen already in numerous cases, (provinces) back away from those freedoms. That would be to some degree, at least evidence, that we’d be giving false hope," Pallister said.
In comparison to the reopening plans of other prairie provinces, Manitoba is taking a conservative approach to vaccination rates.
The Saskatchewan government has determined that most public health measures could be removed three weeks after 70 per cent of the eligible population receives one dose, a target that could be hit before the end of July.
Alberta has moved to the second stage of its reopening, which allows a number of business sectors to reopen with capacity limits and outdoor group sizes up to 20, with 60 per cent of the eligible population vaccinated and COVID-19 hospitalizations declining.
Roussin said Manitoba’s plan puts more weight on second doses in light of highly infectious variants of concern.
"We see the Delta (B.1.6172) variant circulating in many jurisdictions and we’ve certainly detected it here," Roussin said. "We wanted to ensure that we have adequate second dose uptake to guide our response, so we’ve set these targets up that we feel will allow a phased and safe opening."
Community health and epidemiology professor Dr. Nazeem Muhajarine said the vaccination targets set by Manitoba are higher than other provincial plans, and align well with recommendations from the Public Health Agency of Canada.
"Those are good numbers to be aiming for," the University of Saskatchewan professor said. "Manitoba comes in on par with that for the first step and does better in the second and third step."
However, Manitoba's plan lacks important thresholds related to COVID-19 case counts, Muhajarine said. Public health officials did not provide benchmarks for COVID-19 case counts, test positivity rates and hospitalizations to guide the reopening.
"I would want to see what they mean by low COVID-19 levels," the professor said. "Low is not a number… we need to be dealing with numbers when you’re talking about COVID-19 levels."
Muhajarine said given Manitoba’s current status as the COVID-19 capital of Canada, and the risk the virus still poses, it would be "quite a leap" to reach safe, or low levels of the virus.
The professor noted the plan does not discuss continued mitigation strategies, in addition to vaccination, which will be critical to reopening.
"I worry when I see only one aspect of what should be a series of measures put in place that work together, and in a complementary manner, to keep people safe and move towards eliminating and suppressing the virus," he said.
Manitoba public health officials will continue to consider case counts, test positivity rates and the burden on the acute care system with respect to restrictions, Roussin said.
He said if vaccination targets are met, public health does not expect Manitoba to see high numbers of hospital admissions even in a fourth wave.
Should vaccination levels be achieved prior to target dates, the province will reopen faster, Pallister noted.
— with files from Katie May
Danielle Da Silva
Danielle Da Silva is a general assignment reporter.
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