Manitoba’s plan to end mandatory isolation for people infected with COVID-19 is being panned by medical experts as unscientific and has left vulnerable people and their families complaining the province is abandoning them.
On March 15, Manitoba will no longer require people with COVID-19 to isolate for any length of time, public health officials announced on Wednesday.
The same day, the province plans to eliminate the mandatory use of masks in indoor public places.
The simultaneous elimination of these pandemic measures is earning widespread criticism, especially from people most at risk of contracting COVID-19.
“It’s like sort of being put out to pasture a little bit,” said Dave Hanson, a Winnipegger whose immune system is compromised by a medical condition that leaves him more vulnerable to infection.
“Throughout the course of the pandemic, what’s been helpful at many points is when there are ongoing mandates of various kinds that do encourage the public as a whole to be co-operative and act as a community,” he said Thursday in an interview.
“It’s always been more effective when it’s been a requirement, as opposed to like kind of an option.”
Jillian Garofalo, the mother of a 10-month-old infant, said she was shocked to learn the province was ending mandatory isolation the same day indoor mask use will no longer be compulsory in public places.
“People with COVID are just going to be walking around with COVID and maybe they’re also unvaccinated. So how do I protect my kid?” she asked.
“Do I just not bring her to the grocery store or the mall anymore, which is stuff that I enjoyed doing once I was vaccinated and people were wearing masks?”
On Wednesday, Premier Heather Stefanson said the elimination of pandemic protections is required in order for Manitobans to learn to live with COVID-19.
“Look, there’s risk inherent in everything,” Stefanson told reporters at the Manitoba legislature, insisting the province is still recommending Manitobans isolate at home if they’re infected.
This will just confuse people, charged Dr. Philippe Lagacé-Wiens, a medical microbiologist at St. Boniface Hospital.
“The messaging that people are going to receive is ‘I don’t need to self-isolate after I test positive’ and the message that should have been sent out is the province is no longer going to be using the rule of law to enforce it,” he said Thursday in an interview.
“People should still be isolating. People should still be respecting, at a bare minimum, that five-day rule and we have good evidence suggesting that it’s longer than five days that people are infectious.”
Lagacé-Wiens said he fears the elimination of mandatory isolation will place more pressure on infected people to go to work in spite of their diagnosis or symptoms.
He said he can not see any scientific or medical reason to eliminate something as unobtrusive as mask-wearing or beneficial as quarantining when you’re sick.
“I don’t think there’s a whole lot of scientific wisdom that’s going into that,” Lagacé-Wiens said. “I think there’s pressure from politicians to just give you a date and make sure that is available as an option on that date.”
WATCH | Eliminating pandemic protections:
Dr. Alexander Wong, a Regina infectious disease physician, said the elimination of these restrictions creates the possibility infections will increase at a time when Manitoba hospitals are still dealing with elevated COVID-19 patient numbers and intensive-care patient burdens well above pre-pandemic baselines.
“It would obviously be optimal if you had these types of protections and measures would be removed when it was very, very clear that hospitals and ICUs had decompressed,” he said. “That doesn’t appear to be the case in Manitoba as yet.”
Wong said Manitoba is just the latest Prairie province to succumb to political pressure to eliminate COVID-19 mitigation measures on what amounts to an arbitrary timeline
“To believe that everything is done when public health measures and protections are taken away is obviously wishful thinking,” he said.
“We hope that there will never be another wave that will threaten our health-care capacity in our ICU capacity, but unfortunately, the reality is that there probably will be.”
Provincial officials suggested that won’t be the case, but did not provide any modelling or data to back up that claim.
On Wednesday, deputy provincial public health officer Dr. Jazz Atwal said he expects to see more cases immediately after the measures are eliminated but did not envision a new wave of COVID-19.
Manitoba Health Minister Audrey Gordon said she did not envision more cases at all.
“I tend to have a very positive outlook. I wake up every day that way and I walk through the day that way,” she told reporters.
“I’m going to continue with that optimism, not just for myself, but for all Manitobans, that we will continue to see the trend decreasing once the mask mandate is removed on the 15th.”
Garofalo, the mother of the 10-month-old, suggested she would be more optimistic if the province simply kept low-impact mitigation measures in place.
She had a message for Gordon and Stefanson.
“Would you want your child or grandchild being in potential harm’s way like this?” she said.
“You obviously love your family and have compassion for your family — and maybe other people, I don’t know — but wouldn’t you want everyone around them to care about them as much as you do?”