As health officials reported five COVID-19 deaths and 191 new cases Friday, Manitoba’s premier announced plans to begin collecting feedback on how the province should go about easing restrictions in place to curb the virus.
Manitoba has been under strict public health orders since mid-November that have closed non-essential businesses, banned large outdoor gatherings, and prohibited Manitobans from getting together outside their household, with few exceptions.
The restrictions have been extended twice and the earliest they might be eased is Jan. 22.
“The current public health orders — which have been in place for over two months — were put in place to halt the spread of this deadly virus and save lives,” Brian Pallister said in a government release Friday.
“These orders are working, thanks to the willingness of Manitobans to follow them.
“We are now in a position to consider reducing some restrictions and safely restoring our services and activities that so many Manitobans have sacrificed throughout this pandemic in order to protect themselves, their loved ones, and their community.”
The latest deaths reported Friday bring Manitoba’s death toll from COVID-19 to 760. The province has now recorded 27,145 cases of the virus since March.
The province says it will collect feedback from Manitobans on “priorities for potential easing of the current COVID-19 restrictions” through an online survey.
The survey asks people how they feel about the possibility of opening non-essential stores, gyms and other businesses, as well as easing a five-person limit on public gatherings.
Pallister said any relaxing of the rules will be slow and cautious.
“Our goal is most certainly to create a sustainable path forward where our businesses can safely reopen and stay open,” he said at a Friday press conference.
“What we don’t want to do is have a yo-yo effect, where we allow openings and then, because of rising case numbers, have to invoke restrictions.”
Manitoba’s daily cases have been slowly dropping in recent weeks, and on Tuesday the province reported its lowest daily caseload since mid-October with 92 cases.
But numbers rose again on Thursday when 261 new infections were reported, driven largely by a spike of cases in the north, where 139 cases were identified.
The majority of Friday’s new cases — 84 — again came from the province’s Northern Health region.
Another 71 were reported in the Winnipeg area, 14 came from the Southern Health region, 13 were reported in the Prairie Mountain Health region, and nine were identified in the Interlake-Eastern health region.
Dr. Brent Roussin, the province’s chief public health officer, said daily case numbers have been dropping and the strain on hospitals has been easing.
According to provincial data there are currently 117 people in hospital with COVID-19 as well as 166 who remain in care but are no longer considered active cases, for a total of 284 hospitalizations.
There are 16 COVID-19 patients in ICU, with another 19 who are no longer infectious but continue to need critical care, for a total of 35 patients in ICU.
Meanwhile, the five-day COVID-19 test positivity rate is 10 per cent provincially and 7.2 per cent in Winnipeg, according to provincial health data.
Roussin said the public health orders saved roughly 1,700 lives since November, based on modelling at the time.
“The restrictions are quite tough but it’s obvious they have made a difference and continue to make a difference,” he said.
The Retail Council of Canada said store owners have paid a high price during the pandemic and should be allowed to reopen with capacity limits on the number of shoppers.
“Across North America, the research we’ve continued to see is that retail — if health protections are in place and adhered to– remains a very safe environment.” said John Graham, the council’s government relations director in the Prairie region.
Roussin appeared to agree, although he said no decisions have been made.
“I do think that in retail settings, where we have capacity restrictions, then there is the ability to reduce that risk (of virus transmission), and so that is something that we’re looking at.”
A final decision is expected late next week. The current set of public health orders is to expire next Friday at midnight.
–With files from Steve Lambert at The Canadian Press
Questions about COVID-19? Here are some things you need to know:
Symptoms can include fever, cough and difficulty breathing — very similar to a cold or flu. Some people can develop a more severe illness. People most at risk of this include older adults and people with severe chronic medical conditions like heart, lung or kidney disease. If you develop symptoms, contact public health authorities.
To prevent the virus from spreading, experts recommend frequent handwashing and coughing into your sleeve. They also recommend minimizing contact with others, staying home as much as possible and maintaining a distance of two metres from other people if you go out. In situations where you can’t keep a safe distance from others, public health officials recommend the use of a non-medical face mask or covering to prevent spreading the respiratory droplets that can carry the virus. In some provinces and municipalities across the country, masks or face coverings are now mandatory in indoor public spaces.
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