Concealing COVID-19 data adds to public health threat


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You could call it the great COVID-19 coverup.

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You could call it the great COVID-19 coverup.

The Progressive Conservative government of Manitoba is currently involved in a pretty sloppy attempt to conceal the inescapable fact that COVID-19 continues to present an existential threat to the people who live in this province.

This month, a Free Press analysis of provincial public health data showed there were 932 deaths attributed to COVID-19 in 2022. That is the highest number recorded since 2020, when the novel coronavirus began to take root here.

In 2021, government reported 723 COVID deaths. In 2020, 665.

It’s important to note that while still accurate, the 2022 figure is not “official.” That’s because Manitoba’s public health unit has refused to provide an official annual death toll, arguing the information is “not readily available.”

That cannot possibly be true.

If Manitoba’s public health officials were not tracking deaths from COVID-19, it would be a gross dereliction of their duties to monitor threats to our health and well-being. So, let’s assume they are tracking COVID deaths but are under some sort of overarching directive not to make the information public.

To make matters even more complex, those same officials did, however, admit to changing the rules for determining if a death should be recorded as a COVID death. And, as a result, it would wrong to compare annual death tolls for the last three years.

Just think about that for a minute. We don’t have an official death toll, but we changed the rules on how we record COVID-19 deaths so you cannot compare numbers from year to year.

Notwithstanding the current government’s efforts to cover up the continuing impact of COVID-19, there is little doubt that 2022 was a deadlier year than the previous two.

In early 2022, most of the world had removed mask and vaccine requirements. As a result, vaccination rates — particularly for boosters and new bivalent vaccines, dropped considerably. There were no capacity limits in indoor public spaces. We were told we could go where we wanted, when we wanted and hang out with as many people as we wanted without any measures to control the spread of this deadly virus.

At the same time, political leaders and public health officials did continue to strongly recommend that people be cautious about gathering in large numbers indoors and to wear masks if we did. And to continue getting vaccinated with the latest iteration of COVID-19 vaccines.

In doing so, those government officials were acknowledging that we face a continuing threat from COVID. They’d just prefer if we didn’t know just how big a threat there was. Unfortunately, for Manitoba’s PC government, there are other sources of data available.

Statistics Canada reported last fall that COVID deaths had nearly doubled between October 2021 and October 2022. And the national data mining agency said the toll from 2022 was likely much higher because many provinces were not reporting COVID deaths on a timely basis.

And if you’re already rationalizing those numbers with the assumption that only older and sicker Canadians were dying from COVID, think again.

When a jurisdiction fail to report COVID-19 on a timely basis, epidemiologists measure excess deaths, or the total number of reported deaths that are above the number that are expected in any year. StatCan reported that Canadians under the age of 45 experienced 19.4 per cent more deaths than expected from January to March 2022. Excess mortality — the number of actual deaths above normal levels — for those 45 years or older actually declined.

That makes a ton of sense. You can see, even now, that older people take more precautions. They are more likely to get vaccinated and continue to wear masks in public places, acknowledging that they are at greater risk overall.

However, the point here is that we’re still facing a pandemic involving a virus that is rapidly producing variants that are just as rapidly creating new challenges.

The newest COVID variant — XBB.1.5 — has been nicknamed the “Kraken.” It is still too early to determine the exact properties of the new variant, other than to say that it is likely the most contagious yet and presents a significant threat even to fully vaccinated people. We won’t know for sure whether the Kraken produces milder or more serious cases of COVID-19 until it has fully taken hold in the populace.

This is where the deliberate attempts to conceal or obscure the magnitude of the COVID threat become a threat, in and of themselves. The more information we deny to people, the less we will do to protect ourselves, the more likely we’re going to keep catching the novel coronavirus and produce new and more challenging variants.

This is not a situation that requires a lockdown, or the closure of public spaces. It does require government to rethink indoor mask mandates and — more controversially — vaccine mandates. The sustained burden on our health-care system and the major disruptions we’re seeing in public schools are evidence enough that doing nothing is a zero sum game.

More information would help people make good choices about how to protect themselves. Covering up key data on the pandemic will only ensure that the pandemic is with us for the long term.

Dan Lett

Dan Lett

Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.

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