Infectious disease expert disheartened by Manitoba’s decision to ease COVID-19 restrictions

A Winnipeg intensive care physician is shaking his head at the Manitoba government’s decision to begin loosening some of the public health orders designed to hinder the spread of COVID-19 this weekend.

“Our test positivity and our case counts will continue to go down for about two weeks but then they’ll stabilize and then they’ll start to climb back up,” said Dr. Anand Kumar, an infectious disease specialist who has been a critic of the province’s reopening plan.

He thinks the province should have waited on the reopening plans announced Wednesday, which will come into effect Saturday.

Kumar and 10 other doctors have urged the province to pull back, saying the plan focuses too much on first-dose vaccination rates and does not take into account the highly contagious B.1617.2 variant, also known as the delta variant.

There are concerns that a single dose of a COVID-19 vaccine may be relatively ineffective against that variant.

As of Wednesday, 71.6 per cent of Manitobans age 12 or older now have a first vaccine dose, according to the province’s vaccination dashboard, while 28.8 per cent have two doses.

The province set a single-dose vaccination target of 70 per cent and 25 per cent fully vaccinated before loosening restrictions. 

On Wednesday, Premier Brian Pallister and Chief Provincial Public Health Officer Dr. Brent Roussin said the first rollback will take effect at 12:01 a.m. Saturday, allowing businesses like restaurants, gyms and hair salons to reopen. As well, fully vaccinated people will be able to visit personal care homes and limits on outdoor gatherings will increase.

Dr. Anand Kumar, an intensive care physician at Winnipeg’s Health Sciences Centre, worries the province is reopening too much, too soon. (CBC)

Kumar hoped to see the percentage of double-dosed Manitobans hit 50 per cent, at minimum, before things opened up.

“What’s going on with COVID, in particular the delta variant, is essentially a foot race. Unlike the human runner, though, it actually accelerates as we get towards the finish line,” Kumar said. 

“It’s an exponential growth situation, so the longer it gets unchecked or partially checked, the faster it will grow.”

Test positivity rate needs to drop: Kumar

There were seven COVID-19 cases in Manitoba stemming from the delta variant on June 4. As of Tuesday, there are 164 cases and two deaths related to delta, according to the province’s online variant dashboard.

The government can give Manitobans an advantage in the race against the variant by maintaining strict orders until test positivity rates are between 2.5 per cent and 3.5 per cent and there are no more than 50 new COVID-19 cases per day, Kumar said.

As of Wednesday, the current five-day test positivity rate was 7.1 per cent provincially and 6.6 per cent in Winnipeg. There were 123 new cases.

“If we continue to push those numbers down, we give ourselves some some additional leeway” — the equivalent of making a race competitor “start from 50 yards back,” Kumar said.

“Right now, I think we’re almost on a trajectory to lose the race. How badly we lose it, I don’t know.”

Canada has not yet approved any vaccine for children younger than 12. If Manitoba sees a delta-driven fourth wave, the impact could be substantial, Kumar said.

“I’m quite concerned that the next surge would be substantially focused on children.”

Alberta, Sask. ‘going to see problems’

One thing that brings comfort is that it is summer and more people can be outside. Respiratory viruses transmit best indoors, so Kumar was pleased to see the province maintain its limitations on gatherings inside private residences.

Visitors can only enter someone’s home for brief essential activities, such as using a washroom.

“Getting outdoors, it’s really a relatively safe kind of thing. So definitely that’s where you want to loosen the restrictions the most,” he said. 

There are some extended indoor freedoms for those with both doses, which gets Kumar’s approval. 

“I think that’s very reasonable, to be honest. If you’re double vaccinated and more than two or three weeks out, your ability to interact with other people who are also vaccinated, two or three weeks out — this is as good as we’re going to get on an individual level,” he said.

“Now, on a population level, we’re not as good as we’re going to get because we need to get to 90 per cent ballpark immunity where everybody can be safe as a group.”

The  thing he is most grateful for, regarding Manitoba’s reopening, is that it does not mirror what Alberta and Saskatchewan are doing. Both are set to open fully within the next three weeks.

Saskatchewan’s main goal was to hit a target of 70 per cent of people 12 and older vaccinated with a first dose before its last stage of reopening, now set to begin July 11.

“I think taking the more cautious approach is definitely worthwhile,” Kumar said of Manitoba’s plan.

“I think that places like Alberta, Saskatchewan are going to see problems much more quickly and in a much more dramatic, potentially, way.”

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