Premier Heather Stefanson is not convinced the Omicron variant sweeping through Manitoba will put enough pressure on hospitals to warrant new restrictions.
The premier didn’t use those exact words during her COVID-19 briefing Tuesday. However, she implied it more than once when asked when, or if, the province plans to bring in new restrictions to blunt the impact of the rapidly spreading variant.
"I think we’re learning more and more about the Omicron variant every day," she said, adding the situation is evolving rapidly and that more analysis is needed to determine how the variant may affect hospital admissions. Ms. Stefanson said several times that Omicron, although more contagious, appears to cause less severe illness. The inference was that despite record infection rates, the variant might not overwhelm hospitals.
That’s a dangerous gamble, the kind that has not ended well for the Progressive Conservative government, nor for Manitobans, throughout the pandemic. A stunning lack of foresight and preparedness during past waves led to hundreds of unnecessary deaths and a hospital system unable to provide basic patient care.
When asked Tuesday if history was about to repeat itself, Ms. Stefanson — who served as health minister during the third wave — stubbornly and inaccurately insisted her government has acted proactively during the pandemic and continues to do so today.
The evidence facing Manitoba paints a less optimistic picture than what the premier presented this week. Modelling in Ontario released Monday shows if government took no action, hospitals there would be overwhelmed within a matter of weeks, perhaps days.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford said his government had no choice but to bring in strict public-health restrictions, including the shuttering of bars and restaurants. Quebec has imposed more drastic measures, including the resurrection of its nightly curfew.
It’s unclear why the Stefanson government believes Manitoba is immune from those realities, especially since it has the second highest number of COVID-19 cases per capita in Canada. The number of hospitalizations has almost doubled over the past two weeks and daily cases are approaching 2,000.
Manitoba hospitals are already under duress: more elective surgeries and other non-urgent hospital procedures have been cancelled to make room for an expected surge of COVID-19 patients. Some patients in Winnipeg hospitals have been relocated to facilities outside the capital city in recent weeks as a way of "managing" capacity. There is little, if any, slack in the system; exhausted front-line staff can barely keep up with existing demand.
It’s worth noting that the impacts are not limited to health care; on Wednesday, the Winnipeg Police Service declared a state of emergency related to the Omicron surge, reporting 170 employees are currently off on coronavirus-related leave.
The prudent move for the province would have been to impose strict public-health measures prior to Christmas to slow the spread of the virus. The Omicron variant is too contagious to stop altogether. However, a determined effort to flatten the curve — an early-pandemic mantra long since abandoned by this government — would help prevent a sudden surge of hospitalizations.
Ms. Stefanson opted against that approach. She made only minor changes to public-health orders two weeks ago, which appear to have done nothing to slow the spread of the virus. No further action was taken this week, despite a significant rise in hospitalizations in recent days, except to delay in-person learning in public schools by one week.
Without further public-health restrictions, the risk hospitals will be overwhelmed is extremely high. Ms. Stefanson appears willing to take that chance. By doing so, she is rolling the dice with the lives and safety of Manitobans.