Manitoba’s top doctor is again expressing optimism the province could loosen up COVID-19 restrictions in a matter of weeks or months — but there’s still is no roadmap toward a reopening of the economy.
For weeks, provincial Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Brent Roussin has said physical distancing measures appear to be working in Manitoba, given the low number of new COVID-19 cases discovered via testing and the steady reduction in the number of active cases of the disease.
On Tuesday, Roussin once again stated Manitoba will relax public health orders that restrict the size of public gatherings and require schools and some businesses to remain closed.
There is still no timeframe for the start of what he has described as a gradual process that would begin with the opening of some businesses.
“We will be dealing with this virus in one form or another for the foreseeable future but the plans are not to have to deal with with these strict measures for much longer,” Roussin said after announcing one new case of the virus in the province.
Since the first case was confirmed in mid-March, the province has now had 255. Of those, 150 people have recovered while 99 cases remain active.
The active caseload is considered the most important measure, because it represents the maximum number of people who may require medical attention.
Seven people with active cases are in hospital, including four in intensive care. The number of deaths from COVID-19 in Manitoba remains at six.
Over the past couple of weeks, however, the number of new cases has been relatively low.
On Monday, Premier Brian Pallister said he wants to be first province to reopen and bring its economy back online, provided the province increases its COVID-19 testing capacity to 2,000 people per day and is capable of isolating new cases quickly and safely.
Roussin, who makes the decisions on restrictions, was asked Tuesday if he felt any pressure from the premier.
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“Certainly we realize that there’s more to health than just this virus. The impact of these public health orders are affecting Manitobans so we want to leave them in for the shortest period of time that we need,” Roussin said.
“In that respect, we want to ensure that we’re going to restart things cautiously, but it’s certainly necessary to be looking at those things. We know we can’t have the measures as stringent as they are right now. We can’t maintain this for long periods of time.”
The province has plans in place for phased-in approaches of easing the physical distancing restrictions, followed by weeks of monitoring the number of new cases that emerge after one particular measure is eased, Roussin said. But any step in that direction is dependent on a number of indicators.
One is the reproduction number of the virus, or R-value, which indicates how contagious an infectious disease is. So an R value of 10, for instance, means a person with the disease will transmit it to an average of 10 other people.
“We are certainly approaching an R-value of around 1 — it’s hard to know exactly where it is — but we’re sure not seeing propagation of the virus right now,” Roussin said.
“Ideally, we’d look at at least one incubation period, which is 14 days, and possibly up to 18 days or so, of these numbers to numbers to tell us we’re in a stable environment.”
Other factors to consider include:
- Where new cases come from — be it community-based transmission, linked to known cases, or from travel.
- The availability of personal protective equipment (PPE) and hospital capacity.
- The ability to ensure measures to protect personal care homes and other at-risk people in homeless shelters and the north.
- Pharmaceutical intervention, like a vaccine.
“Once the public health indicators are met, will look to cautiously restart the economy and monitor the situation closely,” Roussin said.
The province also must introduce some form of antibody testing to gain a better idea how far the disease has spread among the population. It also must expand its capacity to conduct contact tracing — the process of identifying anyone who may have contact with someone diagnosed with the disease — using people, technology or both.
But, Roussin, warned, it would be risky to rush it.
“Our low numbers should not indicate to you that our risk is lower,” he said. “We know the virus is still here and it can still spread if we’re not careful.”
“The lower numbers are a reflection of our strict social distancing strategies. To continue our progress, we need to continue with those. I think Manitobans know how important this is.
“Manitobans know it’s their actions that got us here while numbers climb in other jurisdictions.”
The province is still working to improve its supply of PPE and has implemented new measures to conserve what it has, and to ensure it goes to those who need it most, officials said in a Tuesday news release.
As such, officials are recommending anyone entering a health-care facility wear a cloth mask. People are also encouraged to wear non-medical face masks during any health-care interaction.
Health-care patients were told to wear masks when using public transit, Transit Plus (formerly known as Handi-Transit) or a taxi.
The province has also implemented new guidelines, similar to other jurisdictions, for doling out the protective equipment. It has classified situations based on the level of risk to workers and to the population they are caring for:
- Green zones are settings or situations involving care or service for individuals who are not considered COVID-19 suspects.
- Orange zones involve care or service for individuals who meet the criteria for COVID-19 testing, those who have been tested, and whose results are pending.
- Red zones involve care or service for individuals who have been tested and confirmed to have COVID-19.
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