It’s more or less official: the province’s top doctor has apparently surrendered his fate, and the fate of thousands of Manitobans, to the ravages of COVID-19. And he won’t say why.
It’s an odd posture for Dr. Brent Roussin, Manitoba’s chief public health officer. As a man of science, you would expect him to deal with the ebbs and flow of the pandemic with scientific logic. If he imposes or withdraws a public health measure, we should be able to count on him to provide a scientific justification.
Instead, in his first public appearance in nearly three weeks, Roussin emphasized he would hold firm on the "less-is-more" approach, even while acknowledging a number of worrisome trends.
Test positivity and wastewater surveillance suggest we are still on the upward slope of this wave. Hospital and ICU admissions are not increasing at an alarming rate, but they aren’t going down either, leaving the health-care system perilously close to capacity.
On the vaccination front, booster uptake by adults has stalled at about 50 per cent of the eligible population. Even Roussin expressed some concern that only about 40 per cent of children 5-11 had received their two doses.
By all reasonable measurements, we’re facing a continued public health threat that requires some sort of intervention. Given the nature of Omicron, it’s unlikely we need to shut businesses and shelter at home with no contacts outside immediate family. But surely there is something government can do to help top the raging spread of BA.2?
Roussin’s response? Nope. Nada. No point.
Roussin was nothing short of a triumph of indifference, a state that journalists at Thursday’s briefing could do little to penetrate.
Why not resume daily updates on the levels of virus in wastewater, new outbreaks in personal care homes, deaths and hospital and ICU admissions? The province stopped providing that information weeks ago with no justification. Given current conditions, wouldn’t more information encourage people to go out and get fully vaccinated, or get a booster?
Surely there is something government can do to help top the raging spread of BA.2? Roussin’s response? Nope. Nada. No point.
Roussin insisted that daily reports of data likely won’t change anyone’s behaviour and thus, will have no impact on the magnitude of the current wave.
Why not re-impose mask mandates or — heaven forbid — vaccine mandates to slow the rate of community transmission and protect more Manitobans from serious illness or death? Mask and vaccine mandates are credited with slowing the spread of previous waves of the virus and encouraging strong uptake of vaccines.
Roussin repeatedly said the government is already strongly recommending masks indoors and triple-vaccination. "Our message has been consistent," Roussin said over and over again, suggesting that after recommending masks and vaccinations, there’s nothing more the government can do to encourage people to embrace either.
And there you have it: Manitobans won’t be given more information on the state of the pandemic because it apparently won’t do anything positive. The province won’t do anything to control the spread of the virus because, by now, we should know what to do.
Roussin is responding less like the province’s top public health official and more like a parent who has grown weary of telling their children to stop playing with matches.
And most maddeningly, Roussin won’t say why.
Roussin is responding less like the province’s top public health official and more like a parent who has grown weary of telling their children to stop playing with matches. "You’ve been told that it’s wrong and it’s dangerous; if you keep playing with matches, you have no one to blame but yourself."
That’s a questionable parenting strategy and an unconscionable approach to pandemic management.
Outside of the government bubble, scientists and medical experts are — once again — pleading with political leaders to re-introduce mask requirements. On the same day Roussin hosted his shrug-fest in Winnipeg, Dr. Peter Juni, one of the top COVID-19 advisors to the Ontario government, was imploring Premier Doug Ford to re-impose mask mandates and start releasing epidemiological data once again.
Juni described conditions in Ontario that are very similar to Manitoba: high rates of new infections, a stable but alarmingly high level of hospital and ICU admissions, and a stalled vaccine uptake. Unfortunately, Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliott is reading directly from the same song sheet that is being used in Manitoba.
Yes cases are going up, Elliott told the Ontario legislature on Thursday, but it was expected. Given that the situation is "manageable," there is no reason for government to intervene or to provide more information.
Of course, all of this political blather ignores the fact that getting COVID-19 is still a serious matter.
Even if you are not sick enough to go to hospital, many fully vaccinated people who have contracted Omicron (and that includes me) can tell you it’s a horrible experience that requires you to isolate from family and miss work. And worst of all, Omicron does almost nothing to boost natural immunity; increasing evidence suggests you can get sick from this variant multiple times.
Thousands of Manitobans are getting sick. Businesses are forced to close because of staffing shortages. Restaurants, bars and other venues where large numbers of people gather indoors are suffering because people know it’s risky to go out without mask and vaccine mandates.
Roussin and the Stefanson government seem to think that if they stop talking about COVID-19, it will just go away. By now, I think we all know that COVID-19 has other ideas.
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.