Manitoba to suffer Ontario’s 3rd-wave fate without further pandemic measures, scientists warn

A senior science advisor to Ontario warns Manitoba stands to suffer severely from the third wave of COVID-19 if more stringent pandemic measures are not imposed in this province.

Dr. Peter Juni, the scientific director of Ontario’s COVID-19 science advisory table, said Thursday in an interview measures employed earlier in the pandemic may not prove sufficient to control the spread of more contagious coronavirus variants.

“You’re now in exponential growth. If you continue with keeping things open the way they are, you will be challenged very swiftly. Don’t fall into the same trap that the Ontario government fell,” said Juni, who’s also a professor of medicine and epidemiology with the University of Toronto.

Ontario is trying to combat its most severe phase of the pandemic to date, with record daily case counts and hospitalizations due to COVID-19. Among the provinces, only Alberta has a higher new coronavirus infection rate.

Manitoba, in contrast, has the lowest infection rate west of New Brunswick, most likely because interprovincial quarantine, re-imposed in January, slowed the arrival of more infectious variants of concern.

Case counts in Manitoba, however, have risen in recent weeks, prompting the province to tighten up some pandemic measures this week. 

Manitoba reduced capacity at retail stores, places of worship, outdoor gatherings and weddings and re-imposed a two-visitor limit for every household. Other measures were left in place, including allowances for household-only indoor dining and maskless church attendance. 

Chief Provincial Public Health Officer Dr. Brent Roussin called the new public health regime Manitoba’s last chance to prevent another lockdown. 

Juni, who tried in vain to convince Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservative government to tighten up Ontario’s measures in late March, said what Manitoba is doing likely won’t be sufficient.

“It’s a very inconvenient truth. What has worked before will not be enough,” he said, predicting continuing growth in case counts. “This is just a matter of time. This will go very quickly.”

Pallister dismisses lockdown talk

Juni is not alone among pandemic experts. Several Manitoba scientists urge the province to impose tougher rules now or face consequences later.

“The time to enact a lockdown or something more severe was probably about a week ago,” said Souradet Shaw, a University of Manitoba community health science professor and a Canada research chair in program science and public health.

“All evidence points to something that would be severe and something that would probably be similar to what we’re seeing in Ontario, B.C. and Alberta.”

Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister rejects calls for more stringent pandemic measures. (Ian Froese/CBC)

Premier Brian Pallister dismissed suggestions Manitoba needs more stringent rules. He said he holds little stock in that opinion when it comes from intensive-care doctors.

“It’s coming all too often from people who wouldn’t be affected adversely by a shutdown,” the premier said Thursday at a news briefing. 

“There are a lot of other people out in the province who don’t have a guaranteed paycheque, who are struggling to make ends meet, who have to work for a living, and they don’t want to go back to depending on a government program. They’d like to be able, with these limited restrictions, to safely offer their services to others.”

Pallister went on to say ICU doctors do not know what it’s like to work in retail and do not understand how a shutdown would result in negative financial and mental-health consequences for the province.

Dr. Anand Kumar, an ICU doctor at Health Sciences Centre in Winnipeg, said he is well aware of the financial consequences of another lockdown.

“That’s not a reason not to save as many lives as we can,” Kumar said in an interview. “That’s a reason to provide those people who have businesses, who have activity, that’s who have livelihoods that are dependent on business.

“It’s a reason to give them all the financial support, generous financial support, so that they can come out of this whole.”

Vaccines vs. the variants

On Thursday, Manitoba announced 261 new COVID-19 cases, the highest daily count since the middle of January.

That brought the seven-day average case count on Friday up to 171, a rise of 34 per cent from one week earlier, when the seven-day average stood at 131.

Over the same one-week period, hospitalizations only rose six per cent, from 137 to 145, while the number of COVID-19 patients remained static at 35.

Since hospitalization numbers tend to lag behind new cases by about two weeks, public health officials will be watching the numbers closely.

On one hand, more contagious variants of concern could push more patients into hospital beds in Manitoba, the way they have in Ontario and Alberta.

On the other hand, the increasing pace of vaccinations could mitigate the effect of the variants of concern.

“You’re very lucky that you were later than we were and that you can continue to catch up with these vaccines,” Juni said from Toronto.

Manitoba is following Ontario’s lead in diverting some vaccine doses away from the general population to areas of the highest risk of infection. Those areas will be revealed Friday.

Vaccine appointments, however, take days to weeks to book. Immunity then follows shots by several weeks.

Infections, meanwhile, continue to spread exponentially.

“What I kept saying here in Ontario in vain is you can’t vaccinate the way out of the third wave,” said Juni, once more advising Manitoba to be tougher. “If you leave indoor spaces open, you will pay dearly. It’s very simple.”