‘Crystal ball’ remark irks front-line doctors

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Manitoba officials insist they have no crystal ball to predict COVID-19 spread, but experts say it doesn’t take a fortune teller to know the province is underprepared for the Omicron variant.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 07/01/2022 (218 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Manitoba officials insist they have no crystal ball to predict COVID-19 spread, but experts say it doesn’t take a fortune teller to know the province is underprepared for the Omicron variant.

“Manitoba is not a desert island; we know it’s coming to us,” immunologist Dr. Julie Lajoie said Thursday. “Their response right now is not logical and it’s not proactive at all.”

Lajoie was reacting to comments made by Manitoba deputy chief provincial public health officer Dr. Jazz Atwal this week. He said it’s still unclear how the highly contagious variant will affect hospitalizations and so existing public health restrictions are not yet being tightened.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES Julie Lajoie, an Immunologist and virologist based in Winnipeg, and research associate at the University of Manitoba.

“We don’t have crystal balls,” Atwal said Tuesday, adding he expects a rise in hospitalizations but that might change if members of the public voluntarily reduce their number of contacts.

“We’re doing the best we can with the information and the resources we have to try and keep Manitobans safe, and to ensure that we’re able to partake in those activities that we enjoy.”

His comments riled front-line doctors and infectious disease specialists, including critical care physician Dr. Dan Roberts.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Education minister Cliff Cullen (left), deputy chief provincial public health officer Dr. Jazz Atwal (on screen), and premier Heather Stefanson speak at a press conference in Winnipeg on Tuesday.

“When Atwal talks about the impact on hospitals, there’s callous indifference there to all the surgeries that are being delayed, all the clinics that are basically no longer functioning, because they’ve stripped every available person to deal with COVID on the wards,” said Roberts.

“The number of people who are eventually going to die because of that neglect is going to far exceed the death toll from COVID. But that doesn’t seem to register with anybody in the government.”

He noted Nova Scotia’s Omicron wave seems to have crested two weeks ago. Roberts chalked that up to sound public health restrictions, beefing up contact tracing instead of outsourcing it, and tools such as rapid tests. The eastern province’s per capita COVID-19 death rate is one-10th that of Manitoba’s.

Roberts was among a group of 10 front-line doctors who signed an open letter last month, in which they pleaded for more restrictions and warned Manitoba doctors will need to soon ration medical resources for those most likely to survive.

Manitoba has since issued two sets of restrictions, but Roberts argued they are not enough.

“It’s not based on science, and those public health officers basically have made a Faustian bargain,” he said, which implies they are more focused on job security than health outcomes. “I can’t believe they’re not aware of the consequences of what they advocate.”

Lajoie, who researches virology at the University of Manitoba, noted Britain and her native Quebec experienced high case rates from the Omicron variant for a few weeks before it suddenly drove up hospital admissions.

“They quickly realized they were not going to be fine, and in Ontario it was the same thing. Now, we see cases increasing in Manitoba at numbers we never saw before. We already have our hospitalization capacity in trouble, with so many cancelled surgeries,” she said.

“It doesn’t take a crystal ball to know that in a week or two we are going to be in the same situation.”

Lajoie can’t fathom why Manitobans can have up to 10 visitors at their homes but the province keeps delaying children’s return to school.

“The government has to come forward and really explain why they are not (increasing restrictions), showing us their models and their data,” she argued.

Atwal said Wednesday the province has modelling, but isn’t ready to share it. He defended his “crystal ball” comment by saying data comes in each day, and Manitoba is assessing which figures are the most credible.

Dr. Tara Moriarty, a University of Toronto infectious diseases expert, is urging provinces to undertake a two-week “circuit breaker” lockdown. She said it would help hospitals and testing centres catch up, and give experts more time to review data on Omicron.

“This is spreading so fast that if we’re waiting to see what’s happening to hospitalizations and others, it’s going to be far too late,” she said.

Moriarty has modelled possible outcomes of Omicron if everyone was exposed to the virus by spring, based on how quickly it’s been spreading. She estimated hospitalizations and deaths, based on the demographics and vaccine uptake of each health region, assuming Omicron’s severity is similar to that of the Alpha variant.

Biostatisticians have had mixed views on that modelling, which suggests Manitoba’s cumulative deaths (as of Dec. 29, 2021) would double to 2,757 by March 1.

“I’m sort of saying: if the whole Canadian population was exposed, what would happen?” she said.

In any case, Lajoie said Manitoba doesn’t have the luxury of waiting until hospitals start maxing out to implement more restrictions.

“They don’t have a crystal ball to know what is happening? Yes, we cannot be sure — but we can have a pretty damn good idea of what’s going to happen to us.”

dylan.robertson@freepress.mb.ca

Dylan Robertson

Dylan Robertson
Parliamentary bureau chief

In Ottawa, Dylan enjoys snooping through freedom-of-information requests and asking politicians: "What about Manitoba?"

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