Stefanson rejects science, picks politics

There are two takeaways from Premier Heather Stefanson’s unexpected announcement Friday that all pandemic restrictions, including mask use, will be lifted over the next month.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 11/02/2022 (235 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

There are two takeaways from Premier Heather Stefanson’s unexpected announcement Friday that all pandemic restrictions, including mask use, will be lifted over the next month.

First, under her leadership, data and evidence will no longer play a role in managing the pandemic; all decisions regarding COVID-19 and how it affects the health of Manitobans will be made at a political level, not a public health one.

Second, the premier is easily influenced by protests, especially when the substance of what demonstrators are calling for aligns with her political views.

Stefanson believes the province has relied too much on the scientific advice of public health officials during the pandemic and not enough on the views of other “stakeholders,” such as business groups. She said so last month.

“A lot of emphasis was put solely at the feet of public health and that’s a lot of responsibility in one place,” she said. In other words, she doesn’t trust that public health officials strike the right balance between mitigating severe illness and death and limiting the impact restrictions have on the economy and on people’s mental health.

Stefanson took her anti-science stance a step further Friday. She essentially declared that she will no longer be guided by public health data or evidence.

Manitoba hospitals crashed several times during the pandemic, including having to airlift 57 ICU patients out of the province during the third wave last year when Stefanson was health minister. Manitoba also has the second highest COVID-19 death rate in Canada, so it’s hard to imagine how the goal of protecting hospital capacity could have been given less weight.

Even with current restrictions, Manitoba has the second highest COVID-19 death rate among the provinces over the past 14 days at 5.6 per 100,000 (Quebec is first with 6.4).

Stefanson took her anti-science stance a step further Friday. She essentially declared that she will no longer be guided by public health data or evidence. By deciding in advance that virtually all public health restrictions will be lifted by March 15, regardless of infection rates, hospitalizations and other surveillance metrics used by public health, she has decided that evidence no longer matters. Her decisions will be purely political ones.

That’s pretty frightening.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Premier Heather Stefanson believes the province has relied too much on the scientific advice of public health officials during the pandemic and not enough on the views of other “stakeholders,” such as business groups.

Meanwhile, it’s no coincidence that Friday’s announcement comes at the same time protesters across the province are demanding the removal of all public health restrictions. As recently as Wednesday, the province insisted it would make decisions on restrictions gradually and in two-week cycles after carefully reviewing data. Dr. Jazz Atwal, deputy chief provincial public health officer, said it would likely take eight weeks to reduce the number of COVID-19 patients in ICUs to manageable levels.

Two days later, Stefanson abandoned that approach and announced that mandatory masks and vaccine mandates would be eliminated in half that time.

The public health information in front of government hasn’t changed over the past few days. Hospitalizations have come down slightly, but are still higher than they were during previous waves. Surgical backlogs continue to grow, as hospital resources are still redeployed to treat COVID-19 patients. And overall ICU occupancy climbed again to 101 patients Friday, up from 96 Thursday (41 of which are COVID-19 patients). Pre-pandemic ICU capacity was 72 beds.

Considering there have been no significant improvements in hospitalizations or other metrics over the past few days, it’s hard to ignore the connection between the protests and Stefanson’s sudden policy shift.

Considering there have been no significant improvements in hospitalizations or other metrics over the past few days, it’s hard to ignore the connection between the protests and Stefanson’s sudden policy shift.

There are no valid reasons to drop mask mandates or vaccine passport in the coming weeks. Those interventions have very few, if any, negative consequences. Unlike capacity limits on businesses and not-for-profits, which do cause severe financial hardship and should be lifted first, wearing masks and showing proof of vaccine cards have no economic downside. In fact, by helping keep public places safe, those measures promote consumer confidence.

Mask wearing and vaccine passports may be a slight inconvenience, but they are effective ways of controlling the transmission of the virus. They are low cost, high benefit measures. Eliminating them should be based on data and evidence, not political ideology.

Sadly, it appears Stefanson has embraced the latter.

tom.brodbeck@freepress.mb.ca

Tom Brodbeck

Tom Brodbeck
Columnist

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

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