History will show it was on Feb. 22, 2021, that Dr. Brent Roussin issued his strongest statement to date on the need to keep social and economic restrictions in place until a significant portion of the province is vaccinated against COVID-19.
That may not seem like an earth-shattering statement to some, but far too many Manitobans are under the mistaken impression that as metrics such as daily case counts and hospital capacity dip downward — as they have steadily now for about two months — there is a chance that we’ll return to the very modest restrictions we saw last fall.
For those watching Roussin’s briefing on Monday, that deeply flawed and dangerous notion was quickly dismissed. "We are cautiously going to reopen but it won’t be a sudden return to open," Roussin said.
"We’re not anywhere near population level protection through vaccines. The virus is still here and we have variants on the front. If we simply go back to where we were in October, we’re going to see November and December again."
That is a statement that deserves another look: the restrictions we’re living under right now should remain in place until we get closer to provincial herd immunity through vaccinations. To even consider retreating to the more-limited restrictions in place until October 2020 would be to invite a third wave of COVID-19 to crash down upon us.
Now, it’s important to note that when Roussin made these comments, Premier Brian Pallister was not in the room. Therefore, we can view what the chief public health officer said as pure public health guidance without even a smattering of political interpretation.
It hasn’t always been thus.
Throughout the pandemic, there has been a small but noticeable gap between the language used by Roussin and some of the decisions on restrictions made by the premier. By law, Roussin can only recommend a course of action; Pallister retains the right to make all final decisions.
That has resulted in a number of disconnects between what Roussin has said we should do, and what the premier has done.
Like mandatory mask orders. There was abundant scientific evidence available by early summer 2020 on the importance of mandatory mask use in indoor spaces. Despite that, it took us until very late September to invoke their use.
The same goes for travel restrictions.
From last summer through until the new year, Roussin was crystal clear about the threat posed by Manitobans returning home from non-essential travel. Anyone who heard Roussin would have assumed clear quarantine requirements for anyone stepping off an airplane were definitely in place.
In fact, it took until late January for Pallister to force anyone returning to Manitoba from points west to undergo a 14-day quarantine, as had been the case for international travellers and those returning from the East.
Now, it would be nice if the comments Roussin made on Monday were fully embraced by the premier. However, it would be a simple matter for Pallister to project all of Roussin’s advice through a political lens and come out with more half measures.
In the past, Pallister (and many other political leaders for that matter) viewed a reduction in daily case numbers and lower hospital capacities as a sign that restrictions could be eased. If we have learned anything from the horrors of last fall’s vicious outbreak in Manitoba, it is that a reduction in these key metrics is not an excuse to ease social and economic restrictions.
At least, not all of them.
It will be hard to remove the mandatory requirement to wear non-medical masks indoors before herd immunity is reached through vaccinations. As long as everyone is wearing a sufficiently thick non-medical mask — or two masks as some public health officials are recommending — we can reopen things like retail stores, shopping malls and personal services (barbers/hair stylists, tattoo parlours, physical therapy) with restrictions on total capacity.
Also on top of the list of restrictions that must remain in place for the long haul is a legal limit on household gatherings. Right now we are allowed to have up to two people allowed into our household bubbles. That must remain in place until the vaccination effort has reached more Manitobans.
And if we’re serious about avoiding a third wave, we’ll likely have to avoid any increases in capacity for houses of worship, while also keeping music venues, cultural and recreational facilities (movie theatres, community centres) and casinos closed for the time being.
Unfortunately, while Roussin clearly understands the need for the continuation of these measures, there is no guarantee that Pallister — a politician who has shown a very tenuous grasp on the concept of delayed gratification — will be able to resist the temptation to ease us into pre-October restrictions.
In the past, Manitoba has used "strong recommendations" to promote safe pandemic practices in the place of hard, legal limits. We know for sure that strongly recommending a pandemic restriction does not work; we need strict limits backed up by enforcement to ensure we all do the right things.
The province’s principal public health officials clearly understand the need to keep certain restrictions in place until herd immunity is achieved through vaccinations.
We can only hope that this clarity is contagious, and has somehow spread to the premier’s office.
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.