Top doctor forced to defend socializing message after order issued

New COVID-19 prevention orders that took effect Thursday failed to match the tough messaging conveyed by Manitoba's premier and top doctor when they announced them less than 48 hours earlier.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 12/11/2020 (752 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

New COVID-19 prevention orders that took effect Thursday failed to match the tough messaging conveyed by Manitoba’s premier and top doctor when they announced them less than 48 hours earlier.

Premier Brian Pallister and chief provincial public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin told Manitobans on Tuesday that social gatherings outside of a single household would not be permitted as of 12:01 a.m. Thursday under new provincewide, critical “code red” pandemic response measures.

The orders that were signed by Roussin and dated Wednesday don’t reflect that; they say gatherings must be limited to five people.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS "It's unfortunate that there's been some confusion regarding these orders because the message has, and continues to be, clear," Dr. Brent Roussin said.

“All persons are prohibited from assembling in a gathering of more than five persons, at any indoor or outdoor place or premises,” reads the directive, which, if breached, will be used to issue fines. “In the case of a gathering at a private residence, all persons who reside at that residence are not to be included when calculating the number of persons at the gathering.”

After news reports questioned Roussin and the Tory government about watering down the order, government officials took to social media to attack the reporting. PC MLA James Teitsma called it “irresponsible.” Tweets attributed to Roussin, who has a law degree, said: “We don’t have time to waste on semantics and legal loopholes” and “Manitobans don’t need a law to do what is right — restrict your social interactions to your household.”

On Thursday, Roussin held an impromptu news conference — without the premier at his side — to explain why the directive for Manitobans not to socialize with those outside their household was not included in the Public Health Act order.

“It’s unfortunate that there’s been some confusion regarding these orders because the message has, and continues to be, clear,” said Roussin. “The message is ‘stay home.’ The message is ‘do not socialize outside of your household.'”

Roussin said public health orders are a tool and cannot always be identical to the “strong recommendations” he outlines on a regular basis.

“We needed to find a balance because we know these type of orders have different effects on different individuals,” Roussin said. “Some people live alone, some people need support of a neighbour or family member, some people need child-care support. We don’t want them thinking that they’ll be under threat of a fine just to receive some help that they need.”

The public health chief said he knew on Tuesday that the new Public Health Act order wouldn’t prohibit people from socializing with those outside their household, but couldn’t say why he and Pallister didn’t mention it when they outlined the enhanced code-red restrictions.

Critics asked why Roussin was sent out alone to answer for the communication confusion.

“I have to ask where the premier was today,” NDP Leader Wab Kinew said Thursday. “Today, even though it’s him and his cabinet who signs the order, they weren’t here to explain the discrepancy,” he told reporters. “I think that does a disservice and it does undermine the public health orders,” Kinew said. “We need to see better communication.”

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS "We need to see better communication," said NDP leader Wab Kinew.

When asked where the premier was Thursday, a spokeswoman for his office said he was at work, but did not make him available for comment. She issued a statement: “Dr. Roussin was asked and repeatedly explained this afternoon why there are a few differences between what is written in the formal orders and his advice to all Manitobans as chief provincial public health officer,” it said. “The premier has full confidence in Dr. Roussin and the measures that have been brought in, either through the formal orders or as public health recommendations, to stop the spread of COVID-19 in Manitoba. All Manitobans need to follow Dr. Roussin’s advice and that advice is clear – stay home.”

It’s not the first time the government’s COVID-19 communications have been criticized, nor is it the first time the government has blamed the messenger.

At a news conference on Oct. 16, Roussin and Health Minister Cameron Friesen announced that beverage rooms in the metro Winnipeg region would have to close for at least two weeks, starting Oct. 19. By suppertime on Oct. 19, after three days of media reports about struggling beverage rooms owners fearing they may not survive another shutdown, new orders were issued that allowed them to remain open.

“They’ve been pulling their punches at every single turn,” Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont told reporters.

The result has been the runaway transmission of the virus that is now so far gone, that targeted measures won’t work and provincewide code-red restrictions are needed, he said.

When more than 200 doctors wrote a letter to the premier asking for a full lockdown to prevent hospitals from being overloaded with coronavirus cases, Friesen lashed out at the doctors on Nov. 3, questioning their “motivation” and accusing them of “causing chaos.”

On Thursday, Friesen wasn’t made available to comment. His spokesman issued a statement that defended Roussin’s messaging.

“The minister is confident that Manitobans have heard Dr. Roussin loud and clear and understand that, regardless of what is or isn’t included in a formal public health order, the most important thing they can do right now is to stay home. That is what the pandemic response system says, that is what Dr. Roussin says, and that is what Manitobans know they must do to help stop the spread of COVID-19,” the minister’s statement said.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS "They've been pulling their punches at every single turn," Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont told reporters.

Kinew said the government is to blame for the miscommunication.

“It would’ve been a lot easier for Manitobans to make the sacrifices being asked of us if the government hadn’t caused so much confusion with the way they rolled out this latest order,” said Kinew, pointing to the news release issued by the premier and Roussin on Tuesday, which said the new restrictions would prohibit people from socializing with other households.

“Now is the time for clarity. Now is the time to have all Manitobans march in lockstep, knowing ‘yup, that’s what I have to do,'” Kinew said.

carol.sanders@freepress.mb.ca

dylan.robertson@freepress.mb.ca

orders-soe-11122020

Carol Sanders

Carol Sanders
Legislature reporter

After 20 years of reporting on the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home, Carol moved to the legislature bureau in early 2020.

Social gatherings: a timeline

Manitoba has relaxed its position on prohibiting social gatherings while the COVID-19 risk level throughout the province is at critical (red) on the pandemic response system.

On Tuesday, chief provincial public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin told the public they would not be able to socialize outside their household when a new public health order took effect Thursday, but that directive didn’t make it into the order signed by the top doctor Wednesday evening.

Here’s a breakdown of the change over the past 48 hours:

Nov. 10, 10:30 a.m.: Roussin and Premier Brian Pallister hold a news conference to announce the entire province will be under code-red restrictions as of 12:01 a.m. Thursday. A media release spelled out the new restrictions, including: “social gatherings will not be permitted, and “social contacts reduced to households only.”

Nov. 10: 12:30 p.m.: Roussin joins chief nursing officer Lanette Siragusa at a press conference to update the COVID-19 situation throughout the province, reiterating that public health uses the least restrictive means available to get the desired result.

Roussin seems to soften his approach to restricting social contacts to the household, advising people to keep their social circle small.

“Remember, we talk about socializing, we want to be only socializing within our household. This doesn’t apply to people who may have parents or friends come for child care or other supports and things. It’s really the non-essential socializing that we’re trying to get at here.

“Our advice is keep your contacts to your household members when at all possible.”

Nov. 11: The new public health order is signed by Roussin and posted on the provincial government’s website. It doesn’t include a provision to restrict household gatherings to those who live at the residence.

The order states: “Except as otherwise permitted by these orders, all persons are prohibited from assembling in a gathering of more than five persons at any indoor or outdoor place or premises. 

“In the case of a gathering at a private residence, all persons who reside at that residence are not to be included when calculating the number of persons at the gathering.”

Nov. 11, evening: The about-face is highlighted in media reports late Wednesday evening. Social media lights up with the news that household gatherings would not be further restricted. Politicians, business owners and many Manitobans question the move.

Nov. 11: 9:26 p.m.: Roussin addresses the change on his Twitter account, writing: “Manitobans don’t need a law to do what is right — restrict your social interactions to your household. Not because you’ll be fined, but because it’s the right thing to do to fight #Covid19MB” 

“We don’t have time to waste on semantics and legal loopholes #Stayhome to stop the transmission of #COVID19,” he tweeted.

Nov. 12, 12:30 p.m.: Roussin holds an impromptu press conference to explain the difference between his messaging and the content of the public health order. 

The top doctor said he knew Tuesday that gatherings of fewer than five people from multiple households would not be a fineable offence in the public health order. Rather, he wanted to drive home the message that all Manitobans need to stop socializing with people outside their home.

— Danielle Da Silva

History

Updated on Thursday, November 12, 2020 1:54 PM CST: Updated after press conference.

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