Vaccines give Manitobans hope, but planning ahead for reopening a gamble: experts

Manitoba public health officials say they’re looking to Saskatchewan as an example of using vaccine targets as goal posts for reopening after this lockdown, but doctors there say it’s too much too soon.

Saskatchewan released a three-step plan last week to gradually relax provincial COVID-19 public health measures, with some current restrictions potentially being eased as soon as late May — but all of it hangs on whether the government’s desired vaccination targets are met.

Premier Brian Pallister hinted on Monday that Manitoba is working on releasing a similar plan “to put some hope in the window.”

“I want to see that … so Manitobans understand what we need to get where we need to go. Where is it along that line where we can have dinner with our mom? Where is along that line that we can have a couple over to our yard,” he said at a press conference.

“We need to show Manitobans that picture because that’s how that’s how we’ll motivate Manitobans to get their vaccinations and that’s how we’ll create a sense of hope where people need it.”

Pallister says he admires Saskatchewan’s forward-thinking reopening roadmap and says vaccines are offering hope to people who are disappointed with a third lockdown. ( Mikaela MacKenzie/Winnipeg Free Press files)

Chief Provincial Public Health Officer Dr. Brent Roussin added that Manitoba’s plan will be very similar to Saskatchewan’s, but will also look at the province’s hospital capacity and epidemiology.

The potential timeline for the reopening plan in Saskatchewan — with the rules being increasingly relaxed or removed in the last week of May, the third week of June and finally in the second week of July — is “subject to change if vaccination targets are not met,” the province said.

It’s aiming for 70 per cent of the population over 40 to have their first dose in the first phase, 70 per cent of those over 30 in the next and 70 per cent of everyone over 18 in the last.

There are specific changes associated with each step — everything from allowing group fitness classes to resume during the first step to removing capacity limits for stores in the next.

‘Premature’ plan

But some Saskatchewan doctors are warning against their province’s plan, at least right now.

“I think it is premature. I think it’s actually taking a gamble,” said Dr. Nazeem Muhajarine, a professor in the college of medicine at the University of Saskatchewan.

“The data don’t tell us that 70 per cent of people with one dose of a two-dose vaccine regime is a good criterion to kind of hang your reopening plan on in any jurisdiction.”

The professor of community health and epidemiology says a reopening plan should come after people are getting their second doses.

(Government of Saskatchewan)

He recognizes the importance of instilling hope in a population that’s experiencing pandemic fatigue, but it’s not quite time.

“Forward looking is always a good idea and I think we need to look to a time we can come out of the pandemic safely, but we can’t just will ourselves a future, a situation we want to get to. We have to work to get there,” Muhajarine said.

That means ramping up the vaccine campaign and sticking with the lockdown until cases come down and stay there, especially given the “dark horse” that is coronavirus variants of concern and variants of interest, he said.

Dr. Alex Wong, an infectious disease physician in Regina, Sask., also believes the reopening plan is premature, but is pleased that his province seems to have created some incentive for people to be vaccinated.

“It gives us all something to work towards, something that’s very tangible … the problem is, it’s really hard to know with confidence exactly what those dates are going to look like,” he said.

‘Dangerous’ messaging

Public health messaging is key in the fight against COVID-19, especially messaging that provides context and evidence, says Michelle Driedger, a University of Manitoba professor in Community Health Sciences and a Canada Research Chair in Environment and Health Risk Communication.

But that messaging hasn’t been strong in Manitoba thus far, she says.

Public health officials have said there is very little in-school transmission of COVID-19, for instance, Driedger says.

“How is the province been making that assessment? Sharing that kind of information is an important part of having community buy-in around whatever the recommendations might be,” she said.

“These things would probably go a long way to have Manitobans contextualize and understand why are we here now … and what is the actual impact of individual choices and behaviours?”

She agrees that Manitobans would benefit from hope to move forward in this latest lockdown, but is worried that following a similar model to Saskatchewan’s is too ambitious.

“It becomes a bit dangerous to make promises that if we achieve this point that we will be able to commit to these kinds of freedoms if we don’t even fully know what does that look like in our country.”