Stricter public health orders coming in Manitoba as COVID-19 cases soar

More public health restrictions are coming to Manitoba as COVID-19 case counts soar to levels not seen since the height of the pandemic’s second wave in the province.

The province reported 502 new cases and another death on Friday as the five-day test positivity rate hit 9.6 per cent across the province and 11.3 per cent in Winnipeg.

Manitoba also identified the first four cases of the B1617 variant of interest, which is contributing to India’s surging COVID-19 caseload. That’s on top of 390 newly identified cases of other more contagious coronavirus variants, according to the province’s online variant dashboard.

Premier Brian Pallister said at a news conference that stricter rules are needed to stem the rising tide of cases but hopes they are only required for a few weeks.

“They are necessary in order for us to make sure that we do not allow ourselves to impose an additional burden on our health-care system that is not one we can sustain,” he said.

Restrictions to come into effect immediately

Pallister didn’t provide specifics on the new restrictions, which will be announced by Chief Provincial Public Health Officer Dr. Brent Roussin at a 6 p.m. CT news conference.

The new measures, which Pallister said are being introduced out of “an abundance of caution,” will come into effect immediately after that.

Intensive care units in Manitoba’s hospitals are seeing a swell from the third wave, prompting health officials to ramp up critical care systems to meet the influx of patients.

As of Friday, the province added 19 ICU beds across a number of hospitals and is preparing for more.

Pandemic modelling data obtained by CBC News suggests the province expects the number of COVID-19 patients in its intensive care units to exceed the peak of the pandemic’s second wave by the end of the May long weekend, and the number could double again before summer.

The current health orders were just introduced last week. Pallister said Friday’s expansion on that will provide “an extra step.”

He said that while he expects the number of vaccines for Manitobans to rise “remarkably” over the next weeks, “we are not there yet.”

Manitoba’s daily COVID-19 caseloads have been over 200 every day for the past week, and hit 363 on Thursday before leaping to 502 Friday.

Asked why the province allowed the numbers to get that high before introducing new restrictions, Pallister insisted the province’s orders have been among the toughest in the country, with lower gathering limits than most provinces.

WATCH | Premier Brian Pallister on why Manitoba didn’t tighten pandemic rules earlier:

Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister was asked Friday why the province didn’t introduce stricter public health orders earlier in the third wave, when case numbers first began to rise. 1:05

But Opposition NDP Leader Wab Kinew scoffed at that response.

The province is pushing toward a crisis point in the health-care system and he said it should have been clear to the government since mid-March “that we were trending in the wrong direction in our ICUs.”

The number of patients in intensive care units on Friday rose to 56, compared to 36 two weeks ago.

Kinew condemned what he called the government’s failed approach to handling the pandemic. 

“When case counts start to grow at a fast rate, you need to take swift action,” he said.

“By the time you see the case counts that we are seeing this week in Manitoba, you’re already locking in troubling rates of hospitalizations and ICU visits for the next few weeks to come.”

Liberal Party Leader Dougald Lamont is pleased expanded health orders are coming and hopes they include rules that would move students to remote learning as much as possible, but he also questioned why things had to get this serious before the government took action.

He said just about everybody “with the possible exception of the premier and members of his cabinet has seen this coming. We’ve been calling for action for weeks or months and they haven’t acted until today.” 

As a result, he said, “we have nurses being pulled into ICU who do not feel comfortable with that because they are not fully trained for ICUs — because we’re going to have an overwhelmed ICU system, again.

“There’s a serious problem with the way this government is handling this pandemic.”

Call for 24/7 vaccination sites

Kinew called on Pallister to take firm action by operating vaccination sites around the clock.  “Let’s get to work because I guarantee you, COVID will not be taking the weekend off.”

Pallister was asked by reporters if he would consider a full lockdown if the numbers continue to increase. 

“Let’s hope not. We’ve taken the advice of our health experts throughout this pandemic [and] we’ll continue to,” he said.

“There will always be those who say we should have done more. There’ll be those who say we should have done less. We’ve done our best.”

Pallister said he had faith everyone will pull together “to get through to the light at the end, which is a partial recovery of our lives as we remember them.” 

The premier also took aim on Friday at those who rebuff Manitoba’s COVID-19 public health orders, doubling the fines for repeat offenders and doubling default payment fees for those who fail to pay fines on time.

According to recent data, about 90 per cent of the money from pandemic-related fines in Manitoba has yet to be paid.

“I’ll say to those that want to flaunt these rules, they’re making a big, big mistake. It’s going to cost them in their pocketbook,” Pallister said, promising to also suspend driver’s licences and garnish the wages of scofflaws.

COVID-19 sick leave

On Friday, the premier also introduced a pandemic sick leave benefit he says will fill the gaps between federal help and the province’s current programs.

Employers will get $600 per employee to cover up to five full days of COVID-19-related sick leave that do not have to be taken consecutively, he said at Friday’s news conference.

WATCH | Manitoba premier on paid sick leave: 

Manitoba will offer up to $600 in paid sick leave for employees who must take time off work for COVID-19-related issues. 1:11

The sick leave can be taken for COVID-19 testing, vaccination appointments, vaccination side-effects, self-isolation after a positive test or caring for a loved one in any of those circumstances.

Lamont was happy to see some movement on paid sick leave, but said what Pallister is presenting is still not enough. 

“We need substantial supports in order to make sure that people can stay home and not work and still be able to pay their bills. I still haven’t heard that from this government,” he said.

“This is, once again, meeting the bare minimum for handling a one-in-100-year crisis.”

The sick leave program begins immediately and runs until at least Sept. 25 to coincide with other federal and provincial programs.

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