As the Omicron variant roars across the province, Manitoba’s premier has conceded the public — and not the government — must be responsible for limiting its spread.
"This virus is running throughout our community and it’s up to Manitobans to look after themselves," Premier Heather Stefanson told reporters Wednesday.
"We must all learn to live with this virus; there must be a balance."
With a record 454 COVID-19 patients in hospital reported Wednesday — up from 251 on Jan. 4 — and the novel coronavirus running amok, the premier was asked if public health officials had recommended more stringent measures to try and contain the spread.
“We must all learn to live with this virus; there must be a balance.” – Premier Heather Stefanson
"I think we already have a lot of restrictions in place," said Stefanson, sidestepping the question. She repeatedly stated Manitoba’s measures have been among the toughest in Canada and it was the first to impose such strict rules.
When deputy chief provincial public health officer Dr. Jazz Atwal was asked if his department had recommended more strict measures be taken, Stefanson jumped in to answer. The premier was interrupted when the question was again put to Atwal.
"We do provide recommendations to government," the doctor said, but left it up to government to comment on whether or not it accepts them.
"At the end of the day, we’ll be taking advice from public health, but we’ll be taking advice from other Manitobans moving forward," Stefanson said.
"I certainly have been reaching out to the business community. We know that pediatricians were out earlier this week talking about the importance of getting kids back to school. This is all of the advice we need to get from professionals out there, so it’s not just falling at the feet of (Manitoba) Public Health."
The fast-spreading Omicron causing severe disruptions to staffing personal care homes, emergency services, home care and essential services is not "unique" to Manitoba, the premier said.
"It’s happening across the country… This is why Manitobans need to look after themselves," she said. "The government can’t protect everybody out there."
It means the province has "thrown in the towel" when it comes to containing the spread of the virus and protecting the health-care system, NDP Leader Wab Kinew said.
"I disagree with the phrase ‘government can’t protect you,’ that’s absolutely not true. We see different outcomes in different provinces," Kinew told reporters Wednesday.
"The inaction of this government on a day when we see a record high number of hospitalizations is inexcusable."
“The inaction of this government on a day when we see a record high number of hospitalizations is inexcusable.” – NDP Leader Wab Kinew
The leader of the official Opposition said he wants to know what measures public health officials were recommending the province did not accept.
"It seems very clear that public health in Manitoba advised the premier to put in stronger… measures," Kinew said.
The PC government has resisted tightening existing restrictions, saying those rules already hinder businesses, mental health and childhood development.
"What we need is to go and have a more balanced approach moving forward," Stefanson said.
Atwal backed up the government’s position.
"Public health had to shift because the virus changed. Let’s face it: the virus changed quite dramatically on us," he said. "We would not be able to contain this virus, so we have to learn to live with this virus.
"It is highly likely that everyone will be exposed to the virus in the coming weeks."
A typical infection caused by the Delta variant would cause three to four more cases, while the Omicron variant is so contagious it often leads to 12 to 16 others being infected, Atwal said.
That’s in part because of a median three-day incubation period — a much shorter interval between being exposed and becoming contagious, which lasted about four to five days with the Delta variant, the doctor said.
"As we learn more, we will adjust our approaches to identify those most at risk and mitigate the effects of COVID-19," Atwal said, noting the province will focus on vaccinations, testing those most at risk of severe outcomes, and using treatments such as antibodies and antivirals.
“One of the positives coming from this (variant) is it has much less severe outcomes, especially if you’re vaccinated.” – Dr. Jazz Atwal, deputy chief provincial public health officer
"One of the positives coming from this (variant) is it has much less severe outcomes, especially if you’re vaccinated."
Two-thirds of patients with COVID-19 in Manitoba hospitals have so-called incidental infections, meaning they have sought medical attention for another issue but happen to have the disease, Health Minister Audrey Gordon said.
Public health officials later clarified that proportion was determined by conducting chart reviews at one facility.
Atwal instead asked Manitobans to be more vigilant than what the orders allow.
"If you’re planning on having 10 different activities you’re doing this week, cut them down to five; cut them down to two. Limit those interactions at an individual level, and that will help mitigate some of the risk related to COVID-19," he said.
Parliamentary bureau chief
In Ottawa, Dylan enjoys snooping through freedom-of-information requests and asking politicians: "What about Manitoba?"
After 20 years of reporting on the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home, Carol moved to the legislature bureau in early 2020.