Manitoba’s decision to further ease pandemic restrictions comes amid troubling signs emerging in the spread of COVID-19 in Manitoba.

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Manitoba’s decision to further ease pandemic restrictions comes amid troubling signs emerging in the spread of COVID-19 in Manitoba.

Last week, 13 new cases of highly contagious variants were announced, bringing the province’s variant total to 23 — three of which couldn’t be linked to travel or another known case.

Several possible public exposures of COVID-19 were also reported in high-risk settings, including at two churches and two Winnipeg restaurants.

On Friday, the province recorded 104 new cases of the virus — its first triple-digit daily total in weeks.

But Manitoba public health officials continue to loosen pandemic restrictions. On Saturday, public health orders were changed to allow six people from different households to dine at the same restaurant table, as long as it’s outdoors. At churches, worshippers are allowed to remove their masks while seated with household members, as long as they are distanced from others and don’t sing.

All of which has two Winnipeg public health experts worried the provincial government’s easing of those restrictions will lead to a rise in infections that could trigger another lockdown.

Dr. Anand Kumar, an infectious disease expert and intensive care specialist, is predicting Manitoba will be forced to implement another lockdown in eight to 10 weeks owing to rising case totals.

"I think (the easing of restrictions) is a gamble and I think the province may be wrong, quite frankly. We’re going to have to see what happens over the next few weeks," Kumar said.

"Based on the numbers that are being publicly reported, I’ve told my friends I very much expect we’ll be seeing another round of tight restrictions by early-to-mid May. I think we’ll be getting into those kinds of numbers again that are worrisome."

One silver lining, Kumar said, is Manitoba has already vaccinated many of its most vulnerable citizens, including residents in personal care homes. That should blunt the number of deaths, he added, should case counts rise again.

The province administered 2,631 immunizations Friday and another 2,637 Saturday, but Manitoba’s COVID-19 vaccine task force has said it expects to scale up immunizations to 20,000 doses a day by April.

The province is banking on the pace of vaccinations outstripping rising case totals, according to Kumar, who said he would prefer a more cautious approach as seen in New Zealand and Australia, which took a "zero-COVID approach."

"If you get the numbers down low enough, you can basically contact trace the cases and control it that way, without necessarily having to do widespread shutdowns. But, obviously, the government has decided in their wisdom that they’re going with this other approach," Kumar said.

"Unfortunately, experience around the world showed us that when you use an approach where you’re focused on not overloading health-care capacity, the problem is that you have repeated shutdowns. You have repeated waves and waves where you open and then another wave comes and you have to close."

Cynthia Carr, a Winnipeg epidemiologist and founder of EPI Research, echoed many of Kumar’s concerns.

While another lockdown is by no means inevitable, Carr said she would also prefer a more cautious approach to reopening the economy than what the province is pursuing. She advocates for a "wait-and-see" approach over next month before loosening restrictions.

That’s because there are some trends in Manitoba’s COVID-19 data she finds worrisome. From early January to early February, Carr said there was a "nice downward trend" in the data; since then, however, there has been a "levelling off" followed by a "slight rise."

Carr said it will be critical for public health authorities to closely monitor any concerning trends and act quickly to tighten restrictions if need be. In the meantime, it’s important for Manitobans to remain vigilant, she said.

"It’s really important for people to understand that even though the restrictions may ease, that doesn’t mean you need to participate in everything. You still need to be very consistent with wearing a well-fitting face mask," Carr said.

"All of those layers, we can’t get rid of yet. Our layers of protection with distancing, with vigilance about your own health, with masks, with hand hygiene, and of course, when it’s your turn to get vaccinated, get vaccinated."

Both Kumar and Carr are worried about the presence of COVID-19 variants of concern in Manitoba. So far, 23 variant cases have been detected in the province, but Carr points to the experience of Ontario as a sign of how quickly things could spiral out of control here.

"In only a month, those variants of concern, or mutations detected, went from seven per cent of cases to over 40 per cent of cases in Ontario… Once that takes over, with its increased transmissibility, we could see exponential spread again," Carr said.

On top of predicting another lockdown eight to 10 weeks from now, Kumar said he’s also concerned about a potential surge of variant cases in the fall, particularly if there is not a modified vaccination campaign during the summer.

"I think it’s very likely (variants of concern) are, in fact, spreading in the community, and we’re liable to see significant issues related to that," Kumar said.

"I know everybody thinks and hopes that we’re at the beginning of the end, but I’m not convinced of that."

Twitter: @rk_thorpe

Ryan Thorpe

Ryan Thorpe

Ryan Thorpe likes the pace of daily news, the feeling of a broadsheet in his hands and the stress of never-ending deadlines hanging over his head.