COVID victims deserve to be more than statistics

Dr. Brent Roussin used to read out loud a list of each COVID-19 death at the beginning of every news conference. The chief provincial public health officer did so, presumably, because he didn’t want the deceased to be a mere statistic on a page. He also did it to emphasize the deadliness of the disease.

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Opinion

Dr. Brent Roussin used to read out loud a list of each COVID-19 death at the beginning of every news conference. The chief provincial public health officer did so, presumably, because he didn’t want the deceased to be a mere statistic on a page. He also did it to emphasize the deadliness of the disease.

“Today I have the sad duty of announcing Manitoba’s first death related to COVID-19,” Roussin said on March 27, 2020. “Our condolences go out to their friends and family.”

It was the beginning of his unwavering commitment to read out the age range and gender of each person who had died of COVID-19, including what area of the province they came from. He did it for almost a year.

Wash your hands, stay home, cancel unnecessary trips, wear a mask, and later, get vaccinated, he urged. Why? Because people were dying. Not just old people, as if that should matter, but Manitobans of all ages, including many in their 20s, 30s and 40s, he reminded the public every chance he got.

Even when COVID-19 deaths began to pile up in record numbers during the two most deadly months of the pandemic — November and December 2020, when 617 Manitobans died — Roussin dutifully read out each death. On Dec. 5, 2020, the worst day of all, when 19 deaths were reported, a sombre Roussin read every single one of them.

DANIEL CRUMP / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES Dr. Brent Roussin used to read out loud a list of each COVID-19 death at the beginning of every news conference. The deaths have become what Roussin didn’t want them to be in early 2020: statistics on a web page.

Wash your hands, stay home, wear a mask, because people are dying, was his daily message.

“I think we all know we can’t continue along these lines. We have to bring these numbers down,” he said at the time. “We can’t keep losing this many Manitobans.”

The number of deaths fell dramatically in January of the following year, after strict public health measures were enacted two months earlier. The death toll would have been far worse without them. Only a few thousand people had been vaccinated by early January.

Fatalities continued to decline in 2021, as vaccines began doing their work. Roussin continued to read out the details of each deceased for a few more months, but then stopped. He still provided daily death counts and offered his condolences, but he no longer read out each individual case. The province continued to list each death in its news releases until March of this year. Then that stopped, too.

Today, the province releases no information about individual COVID-19 deaths. The only data it publishes are aggregate death numbers included in its weekly respiratory surveillance reports.

Today, the province releases no information about individual COVID-19 deaths. The only data it publishes are aggregate death numbers included in its weekly respiratory surveillance reports.

The deaths have become what Roussin didn’t want them to be in early 2020: statistics on a web page.

It’s not that COVID-19 deaths have plummeted and no longer require public reporting. On the contrary: there are more COVID-19 deaths on average in 2022 than there were in 2020 or 2021. There was an average of 17.8 COVID deaths per week in 2020 (from March 27 to Dec. 31) and 12.5 per week in 2021. So far in 2022, there has been an average of 26 per week, more than double last year’s numbers. Worse, the death rate is rising. In May, 161 deaths were reported, that’s an average of 40.3 per week.

Why was there so much concern about “losing this many Manitobans” to COVID-19 early in the pandemic but not now?

It’s not that Roussin or anyone else in public health doesn’t care. Of course they do; they have dedicated their careers to saving lives and keeping people healthy. While no one would expect Roussin to keep reading out every COVID-19 death as he once did, this is an infectious disease that continues to kill and cause severe illness. It calls for a far more robust communication strategy than we’ve seen from government in recent months.

While no one would expect (Dr. Brent) Roussin to keep reading out every COVID-19 death as he once did, this is an infectious disease that continues to kill and cause severe illness.

Why are so many people still dying from COVID-19 (there were 52 new deaths reported Thursday compared with the previous week)? Who are they, and how many have not received at least their third dose of the COVID-19 vaccine?

Are we seeing an increase in deaths among those who only have two shots because of waning efficacy? Shouldn’t we do more to promote first and second boosters, given the higher rates of COVID-19 deaths among those who have not received a booster shot?

Why don’t public health officials hold regular news conferences to answer these and other pressing questions?

Maybe the real question is: when did we become so numb to COVID-19 deaths?

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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