Opinion

Sometimes, if you want to be first, you actually have to be last.

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Sometimes, if you want to be first, you actually have to be last.

The COVID-19 pandemic is an excellent case in point. Right now, premiers across the country are racing against each other to see which one can claim the title as "the first province to completely remove restrictions."

Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister, who is expected to reveal revised public health orders as early as Wednesday, needs to resist the temptation to compete with our neighbours to the west. Given what's about to happen in those other provinces, that is going to be a tough ask.

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney was not first out of the gate with a reopening plan, but he's threatening to be among the first to completely eliminate restrictions as of July 1. Last Friday, Kenney announced a plan to remove all restrictions after 70 per cent of Albertans had received at least one dose of vaccine.

Not far behind, Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe is looking at removing most restrictions by July 11, also based on rising vaccination levels. Many restrictions have already been removed and if all goes well, Saskatchewan will eliminate most restrictions sometime later this summer.

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney wants to completely eliminate restrictions as of July 1. (Jason Franson / The Canadian Press files)

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Alberta Premier Jason Kenney wants to completely eliminate restrictions as of July 1. (Jason Franson / The Canadian Press files)

Back in Manitoba, we're not really ready to seriously contemplate the same approach.

Although daily case counts have gone down in the past few weeks, we still have the highest infection rate in the country, high hospitalizations related to COVID-19 and an increase in the number of variant cases.

We're not out of the woods, yet.

As chief provincial public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin so eloquently outlined on Monday, Manitoba was among the last provinces to suffer a third wave of COVID-19. As a result, Roussin said we should expect to be among the last to reach the conditions necessary for a widespread removal of social and economic restrictions.

"We're weeks behind (Alberta and Saskatchewan) on coming out of the third wave," Roussin said. "So we're going to have to do things based on what we're seeing here."

Listening to Roussin, you would think that Manitoba will proceed with caution and resist temptation to reopen things too much, too quickly. But Manitobans have been fooled numerous times before by Roussin's calm, steady words.

Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe is looking at removing most restrictions by July 11.  (Michael Bell / The Canadian Press files)

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Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe is looking at removing most restrictions by July 11. (Michael Bell / The Canadian Press files)

If history repeats itself, Pallister will come out this week with changes to public health orders that are in complete conflict with what Roussin said Monday. Everyone deserves a chance to do the right thing, even after doing the wrong thing over and over again with tragic results.

But it's just so hard to believe Pallister has the patience to allow caution and science to guide his actions, rather than political ambition.

It wasn't a good sign that in announcing his Canada Day reopening plan, Kenney unveiled a flashy billboard: "Alberta: Open for Summer". We know how much Pallister loves billboards and catchy "we've-put-the-pandemic-behind-us" slogans.

It's going to be hard for Pallister to resist the urge to keep pace with other provinces, particularly since he's already hitched Manitoba's wagon to the very same methodology — vaccination rates — that Kenney and Moe (and others like Ontario Premier Doug Ford) are using to set their reopening timetables.

The total number of people who get vaccinated will be an important factor in determining a lot of what happens in the near future. However, the magic number that many provinces are using to trigger reopening — 70 per cent — doesn't have any particular epidemiological significance.

It is not a threshold for herd immunity; based on the threat from COVID-19 variants, experts are now suggesting 80 per cent or more may be necessary to eradicate this virus.

Pallister should aspire to be the first province in the country with no active cases, which could require him to resist removing restrictions. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Pallister should aspire to be the first province in the country with no active cases, which could require him to resist removing restrictions. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press files)

And the 70 per cent that Kenney and Moe (and Ford and Pallister) are talking about is only measuring people with one dose; waiting until more people are fully vaccinated would have much greater value in controlling a future, fourth wave.

Anticipating that Pallister would likely push the edge of the reopening envelope, a group of 11 physicians from Winnipeg released a letter last week begging the province to put more emphasis on epidemiological markers and less on vaccination levels.

Although the physicians didn't identify specific epidemiological markers, other provinces and countries that have been more successful at controlling COVID-19 have ensured that daily case counts were at very low levels, and stayed there for a sustained period of time, before any move was made to ease social and economic restrictions.

In contrast, Kenney and Moe are triggering their reopening plans two weeks after reaching vaccination milestones. Again, that is a strategy that has absolutely nothing to do with the science of pandemics and everything to do with meeting a political timetable.

Although rising vaccinations levels are welcome, only a prolonged decline in new cases can be interpreted as the epidemiological equivalent of a green light to reopening.

Pallister loves being first or best in almost everything he does. So much so, he often exaggerates his accomplishments to the point of dishonesty.

This time around, Pallister should aspire to be the first province in the country with no active cases. And that may require him to have the fortitude to be among the last to remove restrictions.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Dan Lett

Dan Lett
Columnist

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.

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