WINNIPEG — The Manitoba government said Wednesday everyone in the province will likely be exposed to COVID-19 in the coming weeks and the province's effort is shifting away from trying to contain its spread.
"COVID-19 is no longer an emerging illness. It is here to stay and our ability to contain the virus is limited," Dr. Jazz Atwal, the province's deputy chief public health officer, said.
"We have to shift to mitigating the impact of COVID-19 and away from containing the virus."
The announcement came as health officials reported yet another day of increasing numbers of patients in hospital.
There were 454 COVID-19-related cases in hospital beds — up 36 from Tuesday. The number of COVID-19 patients in intensive care rose by four to 46.
The total number of patients in intensive care, including non-COVID cases, reached 102 — 30 higher than the province's normal capacity prior to the pandemic.
Atwal said the province is not giving up the battle. But given the rapid spread of the COVID-19 Omicron variant, he said the focus is now more on boosting vaccinations, managing virus spread at the community level instead of among individuals, and focusing testing on higher-risk settings.
Still, he said he expected the number of cases to continue to climb for the next couple of weeks.
Premier Heather Stefanson said the province is working to expand hospital capacity, including hiring more intensive care nurses. Last spring, a shortage of intensive care beds and staff prompted Manitoba to ship dozens of patients to other provinces.
Opposition parties accused the Progressive Conservative government of failing to prepare for the Omicron wave.
"They've ... apparently thrown in the towel. They've given up when it comes to containment," NDP Leader Wab Kinew said.
"They've basically waved the white flag of surrender. That's completely unacceptable," said Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont.
The government recently rejected opposition calls to toughen public health orders. Stefanson said the current rules, which include limits on public gatherings and vaccine requirements to enter restaurants, sports arenas and other venues, are among the most stringent in Canada.
Atwal refused to directly answer when asked whether he and other public health officials advised the province to impose tighter rules before last Friday, when the government announced the status quo would continue for three weeks.
"Our discussions occur with government. We do provide recommendations to government, and I think anything further would have to come from government in relation to answering your question," Atwal told reporters.
Stefanson, who became premier in November, indicated the government has started listening more to a wider audience.
"A lot of emphasis was put solely at the feet of public health and that's a lot of responsibility in one place, and I think what we need is to go and have a more balanced approach moving forward," she said.
"At the end of the day, we'll take advice from public health, but we will be taking advice from other Manitobans as well."
Kinew called on the government to publicly release the advice it received from public health.
"It seems very clear that public health in Manitoba advised the premier to put in stronger public health measures," he said.
"I want to hear what the measures are that were recommended."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 12, 2022.
Steve Lambert, The Canadian Press