Manitoba is bringing in new rules for unvaccinated people starting Tuesday as it works to prevent its health-care system from once more being overwhelmed by an increase in COVID-19 hospitalizations — a surge largely driven by people who aren’t fully immunized.
Chief Provincial Public Health Officer Dr. Brent Roussin and Health Minister Audrey Gordon outlined the new rules and announced the province is moving back to the restricted orange level of the pandemic response system at a news conference at noon Friday.
The one exception to the shift to orange is schools, which will remain open at the caution yellow level of the response system, though individual sites can still be moved to remote learning as needed, Roussin said.
Gordon thanked Manitobans who have already gotten vaccinated and urged the nearly 400,000 who haven’t to do so.
“To keep our children in schools, to not postpone medical procedures, to keep our friends, families and neighbours safe, please — I’m begging you to get vaccinated,” she said.
Many of the new rules focus on situations where there are people present who are eligible to be vaccinated but have not been, Roussin said.
Private gatherings will be restricted to two households if any person at the gathering has chosen not to get vaccinated.
Only 10 people will be allowed to gather outdoors on private property if someone is attending who’s eligible for vaccination but hasn’t gotten a shot. In indoor spaces, only 25 people or 25 per cent capacity, whichever is lower, will be allowed in such a situation.
For indoor faith-based gatherings that don’t require proof of vaccination, capacity will be reduced to 25 people or 33 per cent capacity, whichever is greater. If proof of vaccination is required, the current rules stay in effect — 50 per cent of capacity or 150 people, whichever is greater.
The reduced capacity rules will also apply to weddings and funerals where unvaccinated people are present, though the new rules for those types of events will only start Oct. 12 to give them time to come into compliance, Roussin said.
The province will also drop retail capacity to 50 per cent for businesses in the Southern Health region, where cases are increasing disproportionately — particularly among those who haven’t been immunized. If the current trajectory continues, it could take less than three weeks for cases to double in that part of the province, which has the lowest vaccination rate of Manitoba’s five health regions, Roussin said.
“That alone could place the province’s hospital system at risk,” he said.
About half of Manitoba’s recent COVID-19 ICU admissions have been from the Southern Health region, which only has about 15 per cent of the province’s population.
The one new rule that will be applied across the province, regardless of immunization status, is that outdoor public gatherings will be reduced to a maximum of 50 people. Other than that, people who have been fully vaccinated will be untouched by the new rules for now, though that could change if the health-care system becomes overwhelmed, Roussin said.
Manitoba is dealing with an increase in cases and related intensive care admissions among the unvaccinated and the health-care system remains at risk from the delta variant.
“Today’s announcements are the consequence of that reality,” Roussin said.
“If you are waiting until the proof of vaccine requirement ends, you will be waiting for a long time.”
‘Reverse the trend’
In recent weeks, Manitoba has had more people with COVID-19 being admitted to intensive care units, Shared Health Chief Medical Officer Dr. Perry Gray said alongside Roussin at the media briefing earlier Friday.
In the week of Sept. 19 alone, the province admitted 17 COVID-19 patients to ICUs. In the entire month of August, there were only 11 such patients, Gray said.
Manitoba appears to be “on the brink of another rise in ICU admissions,” he said.
“This is our time to reverse the trend. This is our opportunity,” he said.
Lessons learned from previous waves suggest that while an average of one new intensive care admission for COVID-19 every day is tolerable for the health-care system, two a day will start to affect non-COVID-19 services and three or more may trigger talks of transferring patients out of province, Gray said.
Right now, the province is already getting about two new admissions every day.
It’s become more difficult for public health officials to use case counts to predict ICU numbers, in part due to the rise of the more contagious delta variant, Roussin said.
But it’s also partly because more people now refuse to get tested for COVID-19 when they have symptoms.
During one spot check of ICU patients with COVID-19, about two-thirds hadn’t been tested until they were hospitalized.
That makes it difficult to plan, Roussin said, and “also tells us that there’s probably many, many more people who have avoided being tested who just haven’t yet presented for care.”
Shared Health Chief Nursing Officer Lanette Siragusa said the health-care system is introducing new protocols to protect intensive care capacity as Manitoba deals with its fourth wave of the pandemic.
Patients admitted to hospital, including in Winnipeg, will now be assessed for individual care requirements and may be transferred to facilities outside their home community as a way to maintain ICU capacity where it’s most needed. Those transfers will happen at no expense to the patient, Siragusa said.
If the situation worsens, health-care staff may also be redeployed and services may be decreased, though the latter would only be done as a last resort, she said.
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