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Manitoba eases measures as COVID cases decline, but feds warn of severe illness rise

Manitoba is loosening lockdown measures as its COVID-19 case counts continue to level off, but while other provinces see early signs of a similar slowdown, experts warn that some of the worst impacts of the recent surge may be yet to come.

Manitoba is loosening lockdown measures as its COVID-19 case counts continue to level off, but while other provinces see early signs of a similar slowdown, experts warn that some of the worst impacts of the recent surge may be yet to come.

The Manitoba government announced Thursday that it's easing some of its restrictions in most regions as the province sees an overall decline in daily diagnoses after leading the country in new infections per capita last fall.

Starting Saturday, Manitoba will allow non-essential retail stores to reopen at 25 per cent capacity after months of being limited to delivery or curbside pickup. Barber shops, hair salons, reflexologists and some other personal care services will be able to resume operations.

A ban on social visits will also be relaxed, with the province allowing each household to designate two guests to welcome into their home. Up to five people will be able to gather outdoors.

The changes will last three weeks, at which time more openings could be considered, Manitoba's chief public health officer said Thursday.

The northern part of the province will remain under the strict protocols imposed in November as outbreaks in isolated communities have kept case counts high.

Winnipeg epidemiologist Cynthia Carr said this "cautious" approach is warranted given Manitoba's hard-fought gains since Thanksgiving, when the province began to see an exponential surge in infections.

But as two of Canada's hardest-hit provinces — Quebec and Ontario — see infections tick down from their post-Christmas peaks, Carr said Canadians shouldn't confuse a drop-off with an excuse to drop their guards. 

"We have to continue to be part of the solution, and take a very slow approach," said Carr. "Otherwise you're just going to sabotage all the progress we've made." 

Ontario marked a fourth consecutive day of fewer than 3,000 daily cases Thursday, reporting 2,632 new infections.

Quebec reported 1,624 new cases, a slight uptick from Wednesday, but maintained a five-day streak of fewer than 2,000 diagnoses.

However, a lag between diagnoses and the onset of severe symptoms may be concealing the lethal consequences of the recent surge, Carr said.

Canada's chief public health officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, also expects cases of severe illness will continue to rise as people's conditions worsen in coming days, leading to more hospitalizations and deaths.

"Strong and sustained efforts are needed to reduce heavy demands on the health-care system," Tam wrote in her daily update Thursday.

"Without this, the ability to continue with the present level of elective procedures will become increasingly difficult in heavily impacted areas."

Alberta began to slowly loosen restrictions earlier this week as overall numbers have trended down. Still, the province recorded 16 more deaths Thursday, pushing the overall toll past 1,500. 

Chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw warned that hospitalizations across the province are still as high as they were on Dec. 8, when stricter restrictions were brought in.

Tam said the virus has spread to new areas in the country, some of which may not have the health-care resources to cope with a complex medical emergency.

On Thursday, New Brunswick's chief medical officer of health said the province is at a "tipping point" as officials reported 32 new cases Thursday.

The Atlantic province is reporting a total of 324 active cases after months of relatively few infections. Premier Blaine Higgs said officials are seeing signs of improvement, but the future direction will depend on whether people follow the rules in place.

British Columbia's top doctor and health minister warned in a statement that community clusters and outbreaks are behind a high number of cases in the province, despite the infection curve trending downward. There were 564 new cases in B.C. on Thursday and 15 more deaths. 

The province is expected to release an update on its vaccination rollout Friday as the possibility looms that thousands of doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine won't be delivered this month. 

Carr warned that Canada remains on track for a serious resurgence in cases, and with the threat of new, more transmissible variants of the virus swirling, things could get worse before they get better.

"We're (not) out of the woods at all yet," said Carr. "We have to stay very careful in every province."

Tam said Canada has averaged 6,309 new diagnoses a day over the past week, and 148 deaths from the illness each day.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 21, 2021.

Adina Bresge, The Canadian Press