Manitoba is introducing several new pandemic measures focused on youth sports, hospital capacity and some unvaccinated churchgoers, as the province works to get a handle on rising COVID-19 case numbers and hospitalizations.
The latest rules mean people age 12 to 17 participating in indoor sports will have to either be vaccinated or regularly tested starting Dec. 6, the province said Friday.
As well, a number of upcoming surgeries in Winnipeg will be cancelled to free up intensive care space, while gathering rules will tighten for religious events in Manitoba’s Southern Health region that don’t require proof of vaccination.
“I know it’s frustrating to be here again,” Chief Provincial Public Health Officer Dr. Brent Roussin said at a news conference.
“I think we’re all disappointed … that we’re once again looking at further restrictions, once again looking at [an] upwards trajectory where our health-care system is again strained.”
Kids and teens affected by the latest restrictions will need to have proof of either at least one vaccine dose or a negative COVID-19 rapid test from the past 72 hours to play indoor sports when the December deadline hits.
Rapid tests will need to be done at participating private pharmacies, not Manitoba’s public testing sites, Roussin said.
The new rules for youth vaccination also apply to overnight camps for kids, he said.
That update comes as provincial data shows Manitoba’s COVID-19 cases have been increasing most rapidly among people under 20.
The surgical cancellations announced Friday will affect some procedures scheduled for Nov. 19 or later, Monika Warren, provincial COVID-19 operations chief at Shared Health, said at the news conference.
That measure comes in response to a surge of COVID-19 patients entering Manitoba’s intensive care units.
As of midnight, there were a total of 86 patients in critical care in Manitoba, 30 of whom had tested positive for the COVID-19. Fifteen of those 30 had been admitted over the past week — a jump of 25 per cent, Warren said.
The plan to cancel surgeries is expected to increase Manitoba’s intensive care capacity to 110.
It will affect two slates of procedures at the Pan Am Clinic, two at the Misericordia Health Centre and two at the Victoria Hospital, along with endoscopies at Seven Oaks General Hospital.
People whose procedures are being postponed will get a call, she said.
Church rules start Saturday
The new rules will also bring limits to religious and Indigenous cultural gatherings in the Southern Health region that don’t require proof of vaccination starting Saturday.
Services in that region will be limited to 25 people unless the venue is able to split people up into separate rooms in groups of 25 — and those cohorts aren’t allowed to mingle.
If the site is big enough to do that, gatherings will be limited to 25 per cent capacity, up to a maximum of 250 people, Roussin said. Everyone is still required to wear masks and physically distance.
Those new rules won’t apply to religious gatherings that require proof of vaccination to enter.
Southern Manitoba municipalities that are near Winnipeg and have already been exempt from targeted rules in the region won’t be affected by that requirement either, Roussin said.
Those communities, which have much higher vaccination rates than other parts of southern Manitoba, are the areas of Cartier, Headingley, Macdonald, Ritchot (Niverville-Ritchot), St. François Xavier and Taché.
Health Minister Audrey Gordon said the province will send unannounced inspectors to churches in the Southern Health region to make sure they’re following the rules.
“Once again, we must ask Manitobans to do more to reduce the current COVID-19 case numbers,” Gordon said.
The Southern Health region has both Manitoba’s lowest vaccination rate and by far the province’s highest test positivity rate.
On Wednesday, when the test positivity rate there stood at 15.6 per cent, according to internal provincial data leaked to CBC News, the rate was 3.4 per cent in Winnipeg.
WATCH | Full news conference on COVID-19 | November 12, 2021:
The Winnipeg health region has the highest vaccination rate, at just over 89 per cent, compared to just above 68 per cent in Southern Health, the lowest of Manitoba’s five health regions.
While the province’s latest rise in case numbers was initially being driven by spread in southern Manitoba, infections are now going up in every region but the north, Roussin said.
Modelling presented at the news conference suggests that while the potential rise in cases in Manitoba isn’t as dire as what the province saw during the pandemic’s deadly third wave, with no additional measures, there could be upwards of 300 cases a day come December.
But hospitalizations could rise in a similar way to the third wave if no steps are taken, with three new COVID-19 intensive care admissions a day projected for next month.
“That’s not a sustainable number,” Roussin said.
The new measures are about as far as the province can go before it has to start again applying rules to vaccinated people, he said.
“If we continue to see strain on our health-care system, further steps may be required.”
Hospitalizations in Manitoba have already jumped significantly over the last few weeks. There were 87 COVID-19 patients in hospital on Oct. 20 — a number that has now shot up to 145.
Manitoba’s daily caseload has seen a similar rise. As of Friday, the seven-day average for daily cases was 169, up from 85 on Oct. 20.
The province is also seeing a continued spike in its overall test positivity rate, which roughly doubled in the same time frame.
More ICU capacity needed: Opposition
Opposition NDP Leader Wab Kinew said the reason Manitoba is being forced to cancel surgeries to free up hospital space is because the province still hasn’t adequately scaled up its intensive care capacity.
“Where would our province be, had we taken action 18 months ago to scale up our ICU capacity to 200 beds and to appropriately staff it?” he said, speaking to reporters following Friday’s announcement.
“Our current premier was the health minister six months ago when we were learning some of these painful lessons. So how is it that we still haven’t made those necessary investments?”
Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont said the government didn’t act fast enough to stay on top of rising cases in recent weeks.
“We’ve known that a fourth wave would be inevitable for months, but this government continually seems to be caught by surprise when cases start to go up,” he said.
He said he doesn’t understand why the Southern Health region hasn’t been moved to the red, or critical, level of the province’s pandemic response system, considering its high test positivity rate in recent weeks.
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