Some infectious disease experts say the first look at Manitoba’s reopening plan on Thursday was missing important details – especially as cases of a more contagious variant of coronavirus, against which vaccines appear to be less effective, have increased in recent days.
Epidemiologist Souradet Shaw said he was glad to see that Manitoba’s reopening strategy includes goals for people receiving both their first and second vaccine doses.
But he said there should have been an emphasis on indicators like case numbers, intensive care units, and test positive rates.
“While I certainly appreciate the province coming up with a plan, I think the plan lacks essential details,” said Shaw, University of Manitoba Assistant Professor and Canada Research Chair of Program Science and Global Public Health.
“And unfortunately, in public health, the devil is always in the details.”
At a press conference on Thursday, Premier Brian Pallister and Dr. Brent Roussin, Manitoba’s chief public health officer, outlined key steps in the province’s path out of COVID-19 restrictions based on vaccination rates during the summer months.
This plan is tied to holidays and vaccination goals, with some restrictions being relaxed when more than 70 percent of Manitobans ages 12 and older have received their first dose (and 25 percent their second) by Canada Day.
From Thursday, approx. 68 percent of Manitobans 12 years and older had received their first dose, while about 14.2 percent had received their second dose.
Higher vaccine targets were also announced for the long August weekend (75 and 50 percent) and Labor Day on September 6 (80 and 75 percent). If the vaccine goals are met sooner, things will reopen sooner, Pallister said.
Shaw said the announcement would have been a good time for the province to share more of its pandemic modeling data, which could be used to support the announced goals and provide signals as to when to deviate from that plan if things go wrong walk.
“I think it’s one thing to hope for the best, but at the same time we have to plan the worst,” he said.
The update is coming days to Manitoba reported a clear jump in COVID-19 cases related to the B.1617.2 variant, also known as the Delta variant, which was first identified in India.
Early evidence suggests that while a single COVID-19 syringe offers fairly robust protection against other strains of the coronavirus that cause COVID-19, this first dose does could only be about 33 percent effective against the Delta variant.
Need to focus on vulnerable communities
Shaw said he would have liked to see plans on how the province will work to curb the spread in schools and how to reach marginalized populations who are disproportionately affected by COVID-19 and who may not have equal access to vaccines.
“We know COVID is a disease of inequality, as is vaccines,” he said. “We know this virus will find these pockets of unvaccinated people and hit them hard.”
Dr. Renate Singh, anesthetist at the Health Sciences Center Winnipeg and Grace Hospital.
“We still have many vulnerable people in our community [who] need to access at least one dose, “said Singh.
“I’d really like to see what that number looks like by Canada Day before we make any bold plans to reopen.”
Singh said she felt the optimism she saw in the province’s plan is premature given the current infection and vaccination rates in Manitoba and the emergence of the Delta variant.
“We assume that we will achieve these vaccination goals and in the middle of it we now have a variant that is emerging,” she said.
“How this will affect us is still a great unknown.”
Virologist Jason Kindrachuk said Manitoba is still in crisis and needs to figure out how to give second doses as soon as possible – especially for priority populations and those living in COVID-19 hotspots.
Returning to communities with generally low initial dose intake will also be crucial, he said.
“There are communities that are unfortunately disproportionately harder hit by this virus,” said Kindrachuk, assistant professor and Canadian Research Chair in Emerging Viruses at the University of Manitoba.
“Equally supply these communities with vaccines, [making] being sure that they are protected is one of our first and foremost aspects that we need to consider. “
Continued vaccine uptake in Manitoba is likely to put the province in a very different position over the next few months, Kindrachuk said.
And he said it is important to Manitoba’s strategy to remain cautious and flexible as more data is leaking through the Delta variant.