Tighter restrictions coming to Manitoba for May long weekend as COVID-19 cases keep surging

Manitobans will face tighter restrictions as COVID-19 cases continue to climb, Premier Brian Pallister said Thursday morning.

“Case counts spiked after Thanksgiving. Case counts spiked after Easter and spring break. We can’t have the same thing happen after the May long weekend,” he said.

Dr. Brent Roussin, Manitoba’s chief public health officer, is scheduled to announce those measures at 4 p.m. CT. CBC Manitoba will live stream that news conference here and on Facebook, Twitter and CBC Gem.

The orders will be in place for the long weekend “to address gatherings as well as staying at home,” Pallister said.

Pallister was asked which measures can be taken to ensure those people who already don’t follow the current public health orders will follow the new ones.

He said Roussin and other officials are presently ironing out those details.

Vaccine incentives

A vaccine incentive program will be announced next week, he said, urging people to get vaccinated and turn the tide on COVID-19 in Manitoba.

“Best way to get Manitoba through this pandemic, to shorten this third wave, is to get needles in arms as fast as we can,” Pallister said.

Second-dose bookings begin Friday.

Most, but not all, COVID-19 patients in intensive care units and hospitals in the province are people who have not yet been vaccinated, Pallister said.

“And sadly, too many have chosen to ignore the public health orders. Our health officials are telling us they’re very concerned that that number has increased as a percentage of cases,” he said.

Pallister thanked those who have received vaccines. To those who haven’t, he said he respects their right to choose.

“But you’re not alone in the impacts of that decision,” he said. “So consider that. COVID is evil. It robs your breath. It robs your strength. It robs your freedoms. It can take your life.”

WATCH | Manitoba in ‘darkest days’ of pandemic, says premier:

Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister says the province will be able to get more help with its intensive care patients from northwestern Ontario as the province deals with ‘unsustainably’ high case numbers of COVID-19. 1:38

There has been talk throughout the pandemic of herd immunity — the idea that even unvaccinated people will benefit from indirect protection when a sufficient percentage of a population has become immune.

The number generally touted for herd immunity is 70 per cent of a population being immunized. Pallister said that would still leave 400,000 Manitobans unprotected.

“That’s not safety; that’s not protecting everyone as best we can,” he said. “The higher percentages of vaccinations that we can achieve, the sooner we can get through this third wave.”

“The higher percentages of vaccinations that we can achieve, the less likely that there would be a fourth wave, or a fifth wave or a sixth wave. We’re all tired of the yo-yo, of the rebound effect.”

ICU struggles

The province has experienced a sharp rise in COVID-19 cases during its third wave and is now struggling with a lack of intensive care unit capacity that has forced the transfer of some patients to Thunder Bay, Ont.

Three COVID-19 patients were transferred to the city — about 600 kilometres east of Winnipeg — earlier this week.

The first two were moved out Tuesday as a spike in admissions put the province’s intensive care capacity at “significant risk,” a government spokesperson said.

A third ICU patient was sent to Thunder Bay on Wednesday.

WATCH | Pallister on strained ICU capacity:

Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister said the province has worked to increased capacity in its intensive care units before and during the pandemic. Pallister said the province also has a long-standing relationship with hospitals in northern Ontario, after three Manitoba patients were sent to get care in Thunder Bay, Ont., due to strained ICU capacity. 0:31

There were 125 patients in ICUs in Manitoba on Thursday, a Shared Health spokesperson said. The normal pre-COVID baseline capacity for the province’s critical care program was 72 patients.

Of those 125 patients in intensive care, there were 76 who were in ICU because of COVID-19. Nine of them are under 40.

Signs are also emerging that there is not enough nursing staff to care for the expected influx of critically ill patients in the coming weeks.

Typically, ICU nurses provide one-to-one care with some exceptions, but now they’re caring for up to three patients at a time at Health Sciences Centre, St. Boniface Hospital and the Grace Hospital, although health officials say the sickest patients will still be assigned their own nurse.

Pallister was asked if more patients will be sent to Thunder Bay in coming days and what measures have been taken to address the ICU burden in Manitoba.

He said numerous measures have been taken, dating back prior to the pandemic, to strengthen ICU capacity and those measures have been accelerated as of late.

He didn’t mention any of those measures but thanked Thunder Bay for helping out.

Pallister said Manitoba has offered health-care services to northwestern Ontario for many years “and this is a reciprocal benefit.”

He was unsure how many ICU beds remain available in northwestern Ontario but said there is space.

Opposition NDP Leader Wab Kinew said the present problems with ICU capacity are a direct result of Pallister’s decisions to cut health care in the past.

The closures of emergency rooms across the province has resulted in fewer beds and staff, he said.

The government needs to reach out to the military and call other provinces for help, Kinew said.

“Is our premier putting his pride ahead of the needs of Manitobans?” Kinew said. “There are nurses in Ontario right now from Newfoundland, who are there because their government had the humility to ask for help.”

“To me, it’s easier to have nurses fly into Manitoba rather than having ICU patients fly out of our province. That’s where we should be putting our efforts.”

‘Darkest days’

Asked about the possibility of staffing help from other provinces, the federal government or the military, Pallister said “nothing is off the table.”

But when questioned about the last time he spoke to other provinces around the idea of bringing in nurses, Pallister said he has not made that request.

He was also asked how Manitoba will handle more ICU patients and insisted Shared Health has a plan.

Pallister said Manitoba is in the “darkest days” of the pandemic but “it’s important to understand we are availing ourselves of every tactic and technique we can possibly use, given the limitations of the resources.”

As for military aid, Pallister said he will take direction from public health experts “if they feel that is an appropriate course of action to take.”

With all critical care beds full, Pallister was asked if hospitals can handle another surge in ICU admissions over the long weekend or a major highway accident.

“Well, we’re in a global pandemic. There isn’t past experience to guide us, and so we place our faith and confidence in our epidemiological experts, our senior health officials, those who are doing their absolute best and an unmapped roadway to try to map a course,” he said.

“Really, the only people [that seem to] have all the answers are columnists. And we place our faith instead in senior health experts. That’s who we’re going to take advice from.”