Amid pandemic pandemonium, tough decisions essential

One thing we’re learning from the COVID-19 pandemic is decisions made by public-health officials are not always easily understood. What may seem like obvious measures to fight the disease – such as shutting schools and day cares at the earliest opportunity – aren’t always clear cut.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 20/03/2020 (878 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

One thing we’re learning from the COVID-19 pandemic is decisions made by public-health officials are not always easily understood. What may seem like obvious measures to fight the disease – such as shutting schools and day cares at the earliest opportunity – aren’t always clear cut.

Public-health officials have had to make tough decisions in recent weeks on a wide range of issues, including when to close schools and daycares, who to test for the disease, and when health-care workers who have travelled abroad should return to work. To many, those decisions may seem like obvious ones: the virus is spreading quickly and we should just shut everything down and test everyone with a dry cough.

But it’s more complicated than that.

Dr. Brent Roussin, chief provincial public health officer, has had to make some hard decisions over the past week. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)

For example, in some jurisdictions, such as Quebec, officials are keeping schools and daycares open with limited access. They’ve realized shuttering them outright may do more harm than good.

Closing schools and daycares means many essential workers (including some in health care) can’t work because they have to stay home with their children. Providing them with child care allows them to stay on the job to help fight the pandemic.

Manitoba moved in that direction Friday. The province announced it will allow daycares to operate with a maximum of 16 children for families with health-care staff. It’s the right move. Premier Brian Pallister said the province will continue to assess the situation to determine if that should be expanded further. It probably should. Friday’s announcement won’t come close to providing essential workers (including emergency response personnel and others) with the amount of coverage they’ll need, especially once the number of COVID-19 cases starts to soar. Manitoba may want to consider the Quebec model.

On Thursday, the Health Links line received a record 2,400 calls, said Lanette Siragusa, chief nursing officer at Shared Health. The average wait time for service dropped by about an hour — to one hour and 15 minutes — from a couple of days earlier. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)

Opening schools again (they’re closed after Friday) may seem counterintuitive, but in a controlled environment with limited access, it may be the best option.

Meanwhile, many people are asking why there isn’t more testing for COVID-19 to better isolate those who have the disease. Some are even calling for the testing of anyone showing symptoms. That may seem like the obvious thing to do. After all, didn’t the World Health Organization say recently that the key to fighting this disease is to “test, test, test?”

It’s not that simple. The province doesn’t have the laboratory capacity to test everyone with flu-like symptoms. Manitoba’s labs are already running at, or near, capacity.

With few exceptions, the province only tests those with symptoms who have travelled internationally. (They also test some in nursing homes and intensive care units). They target those they believe are at the highest risk of contracting the disease. They do so not only to isolate them, but to track the people they had close contact with (to isolate them, too).

Questions have also been raised about why some health-care staff who have travelled abroad are asked to return to work before completing their 14-day self-isolation period. It may seem obvious that self-isolation should be a hard-and-fast rule, but it isn’t. The reason is some health-care professionals, including critical-care nurses, have skills and training that can’t be replaced. They help save lives. They’re needed on the front lines. As a result, exceptions are made for some who aren’t showing symptoms (using precautions such as wearing masks and not treating high-risk patients).

These are the types of difficult decisions public-health officials make every day. It’s not a sign that they’re taking the disease lightly. They make decisions based on the best available information, to maximize the protection of society and to slow the spread of the disease. They’re not perfect, but so far, Manitoba’s public-health officials have done a remarkable job preparing for, and responding to, the early stages of COVID-19.

The decisions they make may not always seem like the obvious ones, but they’re informed by decades of experience and guided by public-health expertise from around the world, including from the WHO. These people know what they’re doing.

Tom Brodbeck

Tom Brodbeck

Tom has been covering Manitoba politics since the early 1990s and joined the Winnipeg Free Press news team in 2019.

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