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This article was published 20/12/2021 (190 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
One of the 10 doctors who last week urged Manitoba to beef up COVID-19 restrictions says the province isn’t doing enough to respond to the crisis and should bar unvaccinated people from grocery stores and churches.
"The greatest frustration we have is the unvaccinated, and the (Progressive) Conservative party’s response of still kowtowing to those people in the southern region," gastroenterologist Dr. Charles Bernstein told the Free Press.
His was one of the signatures on a letter — "a final appeal to common sense and reason" — made public Dec. 17, hours before Manitoba announced new public health restrictions, saying the Omicron variant of COVID-19 would put the province on track to max out its hospital capacity within weeks.
The letter warned, by January, doctors will have to triage care, which means rationing medical resources to those most likely to survive.
Hours later, the province announced new rules, to take effect Tuesday, Bernstein deemed "completely inadequate" in response to physicians’ concerns.
"People who are unvaccinated should be absolutely limited about going anywhere," argued Bernstein, a distinguished internal medicine professor at the University of Manitoba.
Bernstein said he has no qualms about restricting access to schools to eligible children who’ve received their shots. He feels the same way about allowing only vaccinated people into supermarkets.
He argued the added cost and inconvenience of remote learning and grocery delivery should be shouldered by unvaccinated people, instead of letting them drain health-care resources for a preventable illness.
"They’re going to use up hospital services and… ruin it for the rest of us," he said.
Bernstein said Manitoba’s endoscopy backlog was about 1,500 before the pandemic — a manageable workload in which higher-risk patients could be prioritized. Now, it’s about 9,000.
The doctor said he’s frustrated to have patients in pain caused by precancerous lesions or intestinal bleeding who had to wait so long for an appointment they were diagnosed with cancer by the time they got care.
"These are stories we’re going to hear more of," he said. "It’s unconscionable, quite frankly."
Bernstein was particularly alarmed churches can still have up to 250 people in the same building, regardless of vaccination status, even if that only applies in large venues where people must be separated in cohorts of 25. He said it was "crazy" to not restrict unvaccinated people to online services only.
"If they choose to be unvaccinated, then they should be at home."
Areas such as the city of Winkler and the surrounding Rural Municipality of Stanley have some of the lowest COVID-19 immunization rates in the country.
Recent reports of pop-up churches, where congregants have gathered for services held in secret locations to dodge public health rules, have raised questions about enforcement — as have recent images of shoppers walking around without masks at the local Walmart.
The Southern Health region accounts for a disproportionate share of COVID-19 patients in hospitals and ICU beds.
Health equity advocates have warned restrictions on unvaccinated people must take into account people who are hesitant about the health-care system due to documented instances of modern and historical discrimination.
The Tory government, led by Premier Heather Stefanson, says it’s trying to empower local communities to boost vaccine rates, while restricting activities linked to COVID-19 transmission.
Bernstein noted vaccinated people are still being infected by COVID-19 but with far less severe outcomes that require much less medical intervention, while Omicron can rip through communities with low vaccine uptake.
He used the analogy of rules banning indoor smoking that protect others from the impact of second-hand smoke.
"It’s one thing if you want to smoke and put yourself at risk, but society decided that doesn’t allow you to put everyone at risk — and that’s what’s going on with unvaccinated people," Bernstein said, pointing to the growing surgery and diagnostic testing backlogs.
"It’s being perpetuated by all these people who are unvaccinated, and I find it very frustrating that the Conservative government of Manitoba is letting these people get away with it."
Parliamentary bureau chief
In Ottawa, Dylan enjoys snooping through freedom-of-information requests and asking politicians: "What about Manitoba?"