WINNIPEG — For the first time since COVID-19 vaccines became available, Manitoba is bringing in restrictions on gatherings and capacity limits for both vaccinated and unvaccinated residents to help curb the spread of the Omicron variant.
Health Minister Audrey Gordon and the province's chief public health officer, Dr. Brent Roussin, announced the restrictions Friday. They said they hope to prevent long-term harms the variant could pose to an already overburdened health-care system, which saw the province ask for military help earlier this week.
"We need to delay the emergence of Omicron to give all Manitobans a chance to get their third dose and reduce the demands on our health-care system as much as possible," said Gordon.
Starting Tuesday, indoor gatherings with vaccinated people will be limited to household members plus 10 others. The previous order had no restriction on the number of people who could gather at a private residence if everyone was vaccinated or under the age of 12.
Gatherings involving unvaccinated people in a private home will be limited to one household plus five guests, who can be from multiple households. Previously, private gatherings with an unvaccinated person could only include one other household.
Roussin said the restrictions come as other provinces are dealing with rapid case counts involving the fast-spreading Omicron variant and there is impending community transmission in Manitoba.
He said it is frustrating to have to tell Manitobans ahead of the holiday season to significantly decrease the number of people they can be in contact with.
"We had an extremely disappointing holiday season last year and this one is disappointing as well."
Gyms and movie theatres will also be limited to half capacity, as will large sporting venues.
Churches that require proof of vaccination will be limited to half capacity, while those that do not require vaccination status will be limited to 25 people or 25 per cent capacity, whichever is less.
For public indoor gatherings where proof of vaccination is not required, the limit is also 25 per cent capacity or 25 people, whatever is lower.
Manitoba followed several other provinces Friday with additional restrictions, including British Columbia, Ontario and much of Atlantic Canada.
The latest numbers show eight cases of the Omicron variant have been confirmed in Manitoba, but Roussin said modelling from other areas show that will quickly increase.
"There's no reason to think it would look any different here than anywhere else," he said.
Roussin said it wasn't "realistic" to ask Manitobans, including unvaccinated people, to go without a holiday season again. Instead, he said, the government came up with restrictions that allow people to gather in a safer way.
The new rules are to be in place for three weeks until Jan. 11.
Also on Friday, the province announced First Nations schools will be some of the first to receive free COVID-19 rapid-testing kits.
The tests will be available to students in kindergarten to Grade 6 at 57 schools on First Nations, as well as six schools in the north.
The department of central services said the province has secured 110,000 individual tests from the federal government with another 110,000 expected to arrive soon.
The kits are being made available to communities on a voluntary basis and will be distributed through the schools.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 17, 2021.
This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.
Brittany Hobson, The Canadian Press