Daily public health updates should be in the past: Roussin
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Manitoba is in the middle of a severe early flu season, with a potential resurgence of COVID-19 on the horizon, but frequent public health updates are not on the schedule.
“The days of daily updates, of numbers and those type of updates, I think should be in the past. We’re at a much different time now,” chief provincial public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin said in an interview Tuesday.
At this time — with no widespread lab testing for COVID, influenza or other circulating respiratory viruses, and near-complete lack of data on current transmission — the province’s public health message is the best way for Manitobans to protect themselves is to get vaccinated, wear masks in crowded, poorly ventilated places, and take precautions based on loved ones who are at higher risk because of underlying medical conditions.
On Tuesday, the provincial government announced it is getting rid of its colour-coded pandemic response system, which hadn’t been updated since March, when all public health restrictions were lifted. It meets its end in the green — “limited risk.”
Public health officials are still tracking hospitalizations, intensive care admissions and deaths, but there’s no provincial modelling of currently circulating viruses, Roussin said.
“The days of daily updates, of numbers and those type of updates, I think should be in the past. We’re at a much different time now.”–Dr. Brent Roussin, chief provincial public health officer
Multiple viruses and no restrictions on public behaviour make those predictions too complicated, he added.
Asked how Manitobans should assess their respiratory virus risk considering the current lack of accurate data, the province’s top doctor suggested relying on numbers doesn’t count for much.
“The most valuable information is information that you know about yourself. Are you or someone you’re close with in those high-risk groups?” he said, explaining people can determine their own risk level and risk tolerance.
“Even during COVID, just knowing the daily reports of numbers in a certain area yesterday can’t give you an accurate assessment of what you should do today,” he added. “So it’s the same thing.
“We know influenza is circulating. What the numbers were yesterday or today or tomorrow shouldn’t change how you assess your risk. If you’re at high risk of respiratory illness, then you’re most at risk in crowded, indoor, poorly ventilated areas. Vaccination decreases your risk dramatically.”
Roussin has been urging Manitobans to get flu shots to guard against the particularly unpredictable surge of influenza cases.
Ideally, annual flu shot uptake should be nearing the same levels as COVID-19 vaccine coverage, he said. Nearly 80 per cent of the provincial population is vaccinated with at least two doses against COVID, and about 90 per cent have one dose. Only about 23 per cent of Manitobans have a flu shot so far this year.
That uptake isn’t far off from pre-pandemic flu shot rates, Roussin said, but increasing flu vaccination is a lesson from the pandemic.
“The most valuable information is information that you know about yourself. Are you or someone you’re close with in those high-risk groups?”–Dr. Brent Roussin
“We know that influenza causes significant harms and strains on the health-care system every single respiratory virus season, and so I think we need to continue to get that message out that close to 90 per cent of Manitobans went and got that COVID shot. We need those very high numbers for influenza every year, as well,” Roussin said.
Though he became a familiar face for Manitobans during the height of pandemic uncertainty, Roussin said he now plans to make public appearances “as necessary” and return focus to other public health concerns. Among them: a rise in blood-borne and sexually-transmitted infections and the upcoming release of the latest Health Status of Manitobans report.
During a once-in-100-years pandemic, he said, “to have public figures out daily… to be answering questions, to be giving as much information as we can, I think was necessary… Where we are now, I don’t think that level is necessary, and you do run the risk of losing the strength of a message if you over-message on things… Things like daily press conferences, I don’t think would be effective at this point.”
Confirmed COVID-19 cases are “fairly stable” and on the decline in Manitoba, Roussin said, but he acknowledged recent surges are happening in other parts of the world and the province needs to be prepared.
“We’re still in the heat of respiratory virus season, so if you haven’t yet taken advantage of a flu vaccine and getting up to date on the COVID vaccine, please do.”
Katie May is a general-assignment reporter for the Free Press.