A return to life for some, house arrest for many others One year after the provincial government lifted all of its COVID-19 public-health measures and began to wind down pandemic-related information services, a significant number of Manitobans are trying to navigate their way in an uncertain, potentially dangerous outside world
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A year after the provincial government dropped all of its COVID-19 public-health restrictions, life has only become lonelier for Kaitlin Schilling.
When Schilling talks about March 15, 2022 and the time since, the immunocompromised Winnipegger fights back tears.
“There’s a lot of grief, because I’m inside watching the outside world kind of pass by,” she says.
Two years into the pandemic that changed the world, Manitobans were no longer required to wear masks in public spaces. The province also ended individual case investigations into COVID-19, stopped producing key codes for the federal COVID-19 Alert phone app, travel restrictions into northern Manitoba ended and those who tested positive would no longer have to isolate.
What replaced rules were recommendations from government health officials: people with symptoms should stay home and isolate, wear a mask if they had contact with others while symptomatic and avoid visits with “higher-risk people” after receiving a positive COVID test.
Schilling is one of those higher-risk people. She has an autoimmune disease called axial spondyloarthritis, which causes chronic pain and inflamation in the spine and joints. Her immune system degrades her joints, causing her bones to fuse together.
A side-effect of the medication she takes to prevent further deterioration has suppressed her immune system.
The 33 year old has, essentially, been self-isolating since March 2020. She’s able to work from home in her non-profit sector job and leaves the apartment she lives in with her partner to go to the store across the street and attend medical appointments.
She has been to a couple of other places when a mask mandate has been in place, which it rarely is. If she has friends over, she keeps it at two, maximum, in her well-ventilated apartment while taking social-distance precautions.
“Being chronically ill is pretty isolating as it is, pandemic aside,” Schilling tells the Free Press.
“The last three-plus years have been much more isolating. And pretty invalidating, truthfully.”
“Being chronically ill is pretty isolating as it is, pandemic aside… The last three-plus years have been much more isolating. And pretty invalidating, truthfully.”–Kaitlin Schilling
Schilling continues to feel betrayed by the way the government let safety measures lapse with seemingly no consideration of the needs of the chronically ill.
Over the past year, her world got even smaller.
“It’s hard, because not only has the government failed us — and by us, I mean all of us, but really high-risk folks — not only has the government failed us, it feels like a lot of our fellow Manitobans have,” she says.
“A lot of people just don’t want to wear a mask, because there’s no mandate, and nearly half of us in the province have a chronic health condition. So it’s really hard walking around and being invalidated.”
Difficult as it might be to accept what Schilling says, the Manitoba Centre for Health Policy not only backs up that shocking statistic, but suggests the number is higher.
The research unit in the U of M’s faculty of health sciences reports six in 10 Manitobans live with a chronic condition such as arthritis, diabetes, asthma or an almost-infinite list of other illnesses.
A smattering of places in Manitoba still have mask mandates in place. Most of them involve health care.
The University of Manitoba campus is an outlier, even among other post-secondary institutions. Unlike the University of Winnipeg and Red River College Polytechnic, U of M students and staff are, technically, required to wear masks on campus.
In the past year, that requirement has worn thin for many students. U of M biology instructor Jennifer Doering guesses mask compliance from students has dropped by 30 to 40 per cent, and there’s little to no enforcement.
“We’re not surprised that we’re seeing a level of non-compliance among students,” she says. “Everyone’s tired of wearing masks. But we continue to push for, especially, communication from the university administration as to why we have a mask mandate.
“I don’t think that’s coming through very well. And so, it’s not really emphasized why we have the mandate and why we’re continuing to have it through the winter term.”
As a member of the U of M Faculty Association, Doering advocated to keep the mandate in place when the university dropped its proof-of-vaccine requirements in May. In July, administration announced masks would be required for the foreseeable future, and the policy was extended in December to the winter 2023 term.
“We will look at easing the mask mandate when it is safer to do so,” U of M president and vice-chancellor Michael Benarroch said in a statement at the time. “Going into Winter Term, a mask mandate is the best way to protect our community right now.”
UMFA hosted a webinar for students, staff and faculty last month on how to improve campus safety during the pandemic, featuring talks from an epidemiologist and a professor of architecture.
While she doesn’t know how much longer the mandate will remain on campus, Doering says she’d like to see a similar focus on education from the administrative level to make clear the benefits of masking on campus to students.
“Just having the scientific knowledge more openly discussed on campus would be nice,” she says.
“I don’t know if that means more public talks, or more sponsored seminars, but I think that’s one really good way to communicate that and also just emphasize to the students in communication, the importance of why they need to wear their mask on campus, even if the rest of the city or the province says we don’t need to.”
As an ICU physician in Winnipeg who works long hours, Dr. Eric Jacobsohn spends much of the day with his face covered. Outside the hospital — from visits to the grocery store to the opera — he usually goes unmasked.
It’s an educated choice he’s made based on his own health status, the spread of COVID-19 in the province and therapeutic treatments, such as Paxlovid, available to those who test positive.
In health-care settings, he says, the value of mask-wearing increases considerably to protect against COVID and, as was the case in the fall and earlier in the winter, when hospitals and other health facilities were overwhelmed by wave after wave of RSV and influenza.
But when Jacobsohn thinks about the past year, the end of the mask mandate isn’t top of mind.
“I think the mask issue in hospitals is really is an important issue, but pales in comparison to the other crucial issues that we’re dealing with in the health-care system and the hospital system,” he says.
“And I think that’s what much more of our focus going forward in the next six to 12 months has to be.”
Jacobsohn was among the professionals who regularly spoke out on the realities of the province’s health-care crises in the height of the pandemic. He was part of a group of senior physicians who called for a total lockdown and paid sick leave in May 2021, during the third wave of the pandemic.
In April 2022, when COVID-19 hospital admissions were increasing, he described the province as being in “a profoundly embarrassing position.”
What we’ve seen in the past year — health-care staffing shortages, soaring wait times, physician shortages, burned-out nurses — are problems that have been years in the making, he says.
And, rather than working to fix the problems, the province is “hiding” behind the pandemic, he says.
“I think COVID has become a very convenient shelter for policy-makers, for governments and for people who lead health-care systems, and that it has become a convenient habit to explain embarrassing, systematic failures,” he says.
“I think COVID has become a very convenient shelter for policy-makers, for governments and for people who lead health-care systems, and that it has become a convenient habit to explain embarrassing, systematic failures.”–Dr. Eric Jacobsohn
The latest provincial budget contains almost $8 billion for health care, a nine per cent increase from last year, including $130 million to increase capacity and staffing. The province is planning to bring in hundreds of nurses from the Philippines.
Jacobsohn says his advocacy hasn’t ended; he plans to use his voice to call for a “forward-looking” public inquiry into the province’s handling of the pandemic.
“These policy-makers are responsible for your and my and other people’s health, and they have failed and they are failing,” he says.
“And the question is, where do you start? How do you start turning this around?”
“Well, he called me an asshole.”
David Sawatzky wasn’t sure how to respond when he was accosted in the parking lot at the McGillivray Boulevard Costco after picking up new glasses from the warehouse retailer in January.
A man followed him out of the store and began swearing at him, and it was only after the man accused him of fear-mongering did Sawatzky begin to understand what was happening.
“He said things like, ‘People like you wearing your masks are making everybody scared; you know they don’t really work anyways,’” Sawatzky recalls. “It was kind of all just a mumble-jumble. I was more surprised at first.”
The Altona resident was too shocked to say much before the man returned to his truck and drove away. He’d never had someone openly yell at him for wearing a mask in public before, but was used to side glances from people both in Winnipeg and his home town.
“Personally, I don’t see why it’s a big deal to put a mask on for things like going to the mall, or watching a movie, or whatever,” he says. “It shouldn’t be about freedom or any of that kind of thing, it shouldn’t be a political thing, it should be a health thing. And they have politicized it, which is very unfortunate.”
“It shouldn’t be about freedom or any of that kind of thing, it shouldn’t be a political thing, it should be a health thing. And they have politicized it, which is very unfortunate.”–David Sawatzky
He says he’ll continue to cover his face in packed indoor spaces, in part because there’s no consistently available data for him to reference about how severe COVID-19 is in Manitoba.
“I think you have people at one end of it, that (think), ‘I need to wear a mask, I need to for myself, for a loved one, for my community, in general, I need to wear a mask because it is helpful.’ You have people on the very other side — like the guy in the Costco parking lot — they don’t help,” Sawatzky says.
“It’s all BS, whatever. And then the vast majority of Manitobans are in the middle. They’re doing what they’re told, and they may not have a strong opinion either way. And in that sense, I fault public health for kind of abandoning Manitoba.”
“Hindsight is a wonderful teacher.”
It’s a common phrase U of M community health sciences professor Michelle Driedger uses to reflect on the past year.
Another is the analogy of a hole in a bucket. When the province ended daily dashboard data on COVID-19 and regular news conferences in March 2022, there was no way for Manitobans to easily get a handle on the state of the pandemic around them and act accordingly.
Demand for COVID-19 booster shots has all but stalled in the province.
In January, the Free Press reported that seniors advocates were calling on the province to bring back targeted vaccination programs, as three-quarters of COVID-19 deaths in Manitoba since July have been people over the age of 60.
But it’s hard to infer much from what little booster-shot data we get, because public health messaging has recommended people who get COVID wait six months before getting another dose: is intake low because people are waiting, or because interest is low? Without more provincial data, Driedger says, it’s difficult to know.
“We know… that there have been outbreaks, there have been continued deaths, there have been challenges, the health system is still struggling. So how is that all being managed?”–Michelle Driedger
“I think the fact that we don’t actually get much (information) shared back leaves a lot of gaps around understanding and even confidence, in terms of management,” she says.
“Because you could look at this last year (thinking), ‘Well, there hasn’t been much shared, but maybe things haven’t been that bad.’ But we know, from various stories that have come out in the news media and from other kinds of things, that there have been outbreaks, there have been continued deaths, there have been challenges, the health system is still struggling. So how is that all being managed?”
Information-sharing during the pandemic in Manitoba was “definitely not the best, (not) necessarily the worst” when compared to the rest of Canada, Driedger says.
In a recent study she was part of, B.C. was considered a leader in sharing and quality information. Meanwhile, in Ontario, all information was shared solely through Premier Doug Ford and not medical professionals, which “lacked a lot of credibility,” she says.
Manitoba made some unique choices at the peak of the pandemic, including studying race-based data to determine impact and inequity, so there was some valuable information learned, but it’s an “uphill battle,” she says.
“There’s this kind of dual competition, when you have no restrictions in place, you have a lot of recommendations, but we’ve even had some of our government officials say, ‘Well, it’s OK to get COVID,’” she says.
“That kind of thing, some of those things start to undermine the benefit of getting vaccines…. There’s all kinds of things that we need to do communication around so that people can feel more informed about those decisions that, I think, is not happening right now.”
Malak Abas is a reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press.
Updated on Wednesday, March 15, 2023 9:29 AM CDT: fixes typo
Updated on Wednesday, March 15, 2023 1:10 PM CDT: David Sawatzky is from Altona.