Manitoba is once again tightening COVID-19 restrictions in what the province’s chief public health officer described as the “last chance” to slow the growth of the pandemic’s third wave and avert a full lockdown.
Indoor gathering restrictions will revert to two designated visitors. Previously, people had been allowed to designate two visitors or create a bubble with another household, but that second option has now been eliminated.
The new health orders also reduce outdoor gathering sizes on public and private property to 10 people, including members of a household. The province had allowed outdoor gatherings of 25 in public and 10 in addition to household members on private property.
The new orders will remain in effect until May 12.
The changes come as provinces across Canada struggle to beat back a rising third wave of the pandemic. Manitoba’s seven-day average for daily cases has increased from about 75 a month ago to 121 on Monday, after the province gradually relaxed restrictions starting in January.
“We’re at a very important place right now, where we need to avert this third wave, and I really think that these orders right here are our last chance to flatten our curve here in a third wave before we will have to revert back to more stringent public health restrictions,” Chief Provincial Public Health Officer Dr. Brent Roussin said at a news conference Monday.
WATCH | Dr. Brent Roussin says new pandemic rules are “last chance” to flatten 3rd wave curve
Rising daily case numbers, including a growing proportion of more infectious coronavirus variants, made it necessary to tighten restrictions, Roussin said.
Public health officials have noticed some concerning trends, he said, including people with COVID-19 having more contacts. Cases have been linked to large indoor gatherings such as house parties, as well as play dates and sleepovers involving members of different households.
“What we saw in the early stages of the second wave was roughly about a 50 per cent per week growth, and so we were expecting at least that, and probably significantly more than that over the next couple of weeks, if we don’t do anything to change that transmission cycle,” Roussin said.
Despite the evidence that the province has entered a third wave, Premier Brian Pallister said Manitoba’s numbers were a fraction of jurisdictions like Ontario and Quebec, which have imposed strict measures such as stay-at-home orders and curfews in their efforts to slow transmission.
“Manitobans don’t deserve a lockdown because Manitobans did the right thing, but they do deserve to have a long-term sense that we’re moving in the right direction,” Pallister said.
WATCH | Manitoba premier says new pandemic rules “based on foresight”
The province is also reducing maximum capacity at funerals and weddings to 10 people, plus a photographer and officiant. The province had raised the capacity to 25 in health orders that went into effect March 26.
Capacity at faith-based and cultural gatherings will be reduced to a maximum of 50 people — down from 100 — or 25 per cent of capacity, whichever is lower. Previous orders requiring masks to be worn at all times, other than when seated with members of the same household and not singing or chanting, remain in place.
These new restrictions will come into effect at 12:01 a.m. Tuesday.
The province is also reducing retail capacity to one-third of capacity or a maximum of 333 customers, whichever is lower — down from 50 per cent or 500 customers. Those restrictions come into effect on Wednesday, in order to give retailers time to adjust.
On Saturday, Manitoba saw its highest daily case count since January, with 183 new cases announced. The seven-day average now sits around 138.
Vaccine eligibility expands
The update comes on the same day the province announced it will follow Ontario and Alberta’s lead in dropping the eligibility age for the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine to 40 and older.
All Manitobans 40 and older can now book a vaccination appointment with a doctor or pharmacist who has the vaccine. The province has a map displaying all locations where people can receive the AstraZeneca vaccine.
The province also changed the age of eligibility to receive a vaccine at a supersite or pop-up clinic to 54 and older for all Manitobans, and 34 and older for First Nations people.
Health Canada approved the AstraZeneca vaccine for age 18 and up in February but the National Advisory Committee on Immunization more recently recommended its use on people younger than 55 be suspended as it looked into reports of rare blood clots in some patients.
Before the change announced Monday, the AstraZeneca vaccine was available only to Manitobans 55 and older with certain health conditions or other risk factors.
On Sunday, the federal government said the provinces and territories may set the eligibility for the vaccine to anyone 18 or older, as some pharmacists warned they had doses sitting idle because of the restrictions.
“Provinces and territories are free to use AstraZeneca in any population over 18 per Health Canada’s license for use in Canada,” federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu told reporters.