Tories see no monkeypox, speak no monkeypox Deer-in-headlights public health strategy ample evidence province learned nothing from botched COVID response

On Thursday, the same day the United States declared monkeypox a public health emergency, and a full two weeks after the World Health Organization categorized the outbreak as a global health emergency, health officials in Manitoba opted to embrace a strategy of complete and utter silence.

Read this article for free:

or

Already have an account? Log in here »

To continue reading, please subscribe with this special offer:

All-Access Digital Subscription

$1.50 for 150 days*

  • Enjoy unlimited reading on winnipegfreepress.com
  • Read the E-Edition, our digital replica newspaper
  • Access News Break, our award-winning app
  • Play interactive puzzles
Continue

*Pay $1.50 for the first 22 weeks of your subscription. After 22 weeks, price increases to the regular rate of $19.00 per month. GST will be added to each payment. Subscription can be cancelled after the first 22 weeks.

Opinion

On Thursday, the same day the United States declared monkeypox a public health emergency, and a full two weeks after the World Health Organization categorized the outbreak as a global health emergency, health officials in Manitoba opted to embrace a strategy of complete and utter silence.

Manitoba did develop a protocol in June to immunize anyone who had confirmed contact with a confirmed case. But since then, we’ve had no public warnings or education, no news briefings to describe the threat level in Manitoba or to reveal the level of preparedness in the public health system.

At this stage, we don’t know how much vaccine Manitoba has and whether it has any chance of getting more should monkeypox officially get out of hand.

In the face of a new public health threat, we got silence. Deathly, incomprehensible silence.

In the face of a new public health threat, we got silence. Deathly, incomprehensible silence.

Undaunted by what seemed like a deliberately engineered information blackout, Free Press reporters did their due diligence and approached people up and down the government hierarchy.

Our reporters asked Premier Heather Stefanson, available Thursday at a public event, for any details of preparations the province was making to ward off monkeypox. She had nothing. Instead, she told reporters to contact Dr. Brent Roussin, the chief provincial public health officer.

However, the Free Press was unable to reach Roussin. We also attempted to interview Dr. Carol Kurbis, one of the province’s top medical officers of health, who made some unsettling comments in a July 21 online forum hosted by a Winnipeg inner-city harm-reduction resource centre.

At that event, Kurbis acknowledged other provinces were already offering Imvamune monkeypox vaccine to high-risk groups as a preventative measure — before they had been exposed to a confirmed case. Manitoba was still limiting its vaccine program to people who have been conclusively exposed to the highly contagious virus because “we don’t currently have enough vaccine… for pre-exposure prophylaxis.”

At a time when monkeypox was most definitely a top-of-mind issue in the news cycle, public health leaders simply refused to engage.

The request to speak with Kurbis was also refused.

At a time when monkeypox was most definitely a top-of-mind issue in the news cycle, public health leaders simply refused to engage. Perhaps the low-key approach is not surprising, given the Tory government, like most provinces, has simply stopped talking about COVID-19 despite the fact the pandemic is, once again, a live and growing existential threat.

Still, the gag order on monkeypox was a really bad look for a government that does not have a good reputation for managing public health. A bad enough look that the spin doctors got to work Friday in an attempt to remedy the situation.

With a story on the front page of the Free Press sounding the alarm about the province’s lackadaisical approach to monkeypox, back-channel rumours started circulating Friday morning suggesting an announcement was in the works. Finally, at 12:34 p.m., a new release was issued outlining plans to expand vaccine eligibility.

Now, Imvamune will be available to all Manitobans who identify as gay, bisexual, trans or two-spirited and have met one of the following criteria: tested positive for a sexually transmitted disease; have had two or more sexual partners in the last 21 days, have had anonymous sex or attended locations for sexual contact (baths, clubs) in the last 21 days or who engage in sex work either as a worker or a client.

Although expanding the vaccine eligibility is a good step, it’s unclear whether Manitoba — and other jurisdictions that have also adopted a laid-back approach to monkeypox — has once again waited too long to actually contain the spread of a horrendous disease.

ETHAN CAIRNS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Health Minister Audrey Gordon refused to answer questions about the virus before a news conference she attended Friday.

It would be interesting to ask Health Minister Audrey Gordon, or Roussin or even Stefanson whether Manitoba is prepared for a major monkeypox outbreak and why it is that this province doesn’t have enough vaccine for a broader preventative effort.

Unfortunately, Gordon refused to answer questions about the virus before a news conference she attended Friday. And, as was the case the day before, no public health official was available for interviews.

In the absence of unambiguous assurances Manitoba has got the monkeypox situation in hand, we are left to conclude that it probably doesn’t. And those who leap to that conclusion have quite a bit of previous experience to fall back on.

A chronic theme of this province’s pandemic response was the insistence of political leaders and public health officials to wait until COVID-19 case counts had reached crisis levels before invoking social and economic restrictions. In doing so, Manitoba produced some of the worst outcomes of any jurisdiction in North America.

In the absence of unambiguous assurances Manitoba has got the monkeypox situation in hand, we are left to conclude that it probably doesn’t.

The good news is that while monkeypox is infectious, there is already a vaccine. And the further good news is that epidemiologists believe it can be contained with strategic deployment of sufficient quantities of vaccines. But only if we act now to protect those most at risk.

Stefanson should be aware that most Manitobans are unhappy with her government’s response to COVID-19. And on that basis alone, she should be making an extra effort now to not only manage a more pre-emptive response, but be seen to be acting more urgently.

What she should not do is embrace a strategy of deathly silence at a time when Manitobans need to hear her voice.

dan.lett@winnipegfreepress.com

Dan Lett

Dan Lett
Columnist

Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.

Report Error Submit a Tip