As Manitoba’s third wave of COVID-19 turns into a tsunami, the premier and health minister failed Thursday to address pressing issues or provide reassurance to weary Manitobans 14 months into a global pandemic.
On a day when 363 new coronavirus cases were reported in Manitoba, ICU admissions continued to rise and the test-positivity rate in Winnipeg went back above 10 per cent, neither Premier Brian Pallister nor Health Minister Heather Stefanson would take questions from reporters.
They haven't been made available to respond to inquiries since April 29 when the legislative assembly recessed for "constituency week." Pallister, who on that day announced a plan to allow Manitoba school staff to get vaccinated in North Dakota, promised to provide details this week — but as of Thursday, had not. Stefanson didn't respond to media inquiries, but tweeted a photo of herself touring the new vaccination super-site at the soccer complex in north Winnipeg, which will open Friday.
Meanwhile, the province has postponed more elective surgeries and plans to hold a technical briefing Friday, a provincial spokeswoman said Thursday.
"As you’re aware, Wave 3 of COVID-19 is here and we are starting to see increased hospitalizations and admissions to ICU, with a particular increase in the number of younger Manitobans needing more acute care," she said in an email. "Increasing capacity across acute-care sites to care for patients has resulted in the temporary postponement of some non-urgent, elective surgeries."
There was no word from the health minister about whether she would sign any new public health orders to clamp down on the spread of the virus.
A spokesperson for the provincial executive council wouldn't reveal the premier's whereabouts or say why neither he nor the health minister is responding to questions from reporters.
"...It is absurd to infer that an elected official is only working when they are speaking into a microphone or looking into a camera — especially in the midst of a global pandemic," Blake Robert, director of media relations and issues management said in an email. "The ongoing response to COVID-19 has the government’s full attention, regardless of fabrications to the contrary by the NDP and their allies."
"We can't sustain this number of cases on our health-care system. We need to bring these numbers down and we need to work on that starting right now." — Chief provincial public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin
After daily case counts rose above 300 in November, the province imposed strict measures that took effect Nov. 12. Just four days later, as they announced 392 new COVID-19 cases and 10 deaths, the province's top health officials warned the health-care system was nearly overrun.
"We can't sustain this number of cases on our health-care system. We need to bring these numbers down and we need to work on that starting right now," chief provincial public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin said at the time.
"Our health-care providers are becoming overwhelmed. I know many Manitobans are worried, many Manitobans are scared right now."
At the time, there were more than 40 COVID-19 patients in intensive care — fewer than there are now. The peak of the second wave had yet to hit Manitoba's hospitals — that didn't happen until early December.
Since then, concerns have multiplied about the lack of available health-care staff.
This week, doctors urged the premier to impose a lockdown. CBC reported Thursday that it obtained confidential Manitoba Health modelling data that show COVID-19 patients in the ICU could exceed the peak of the second wave by the end of the May long weekend — and that number could double again before summer.
"It's a critical situation," said NDP Leader Wab Kinew.
He has called on the province to share the modelling data with the public so Manitobans can see "how much more serious the situation could be."
On Thursday, he asked where Pallister has been for the last week, and why he ran for premier if he didn't want to "show up on the darkest days or in the most challenging moments."
Kinew said he'd take back the criticism if the premier had a legitimate reason for his absence, but "if this is just an example of the PCs wanting to lay low with their fingers crossed, that ain't it."
"Money can be replaced, lives cannot. We need a circuit-breaker now.” — Manitoba Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont
Manitoba Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont called for a "circuit-breaker" of new restrictions to reduce contacts, including closing schools.
"New COVID cases are up, the test positivity rate has tripled in the last month, and our ICU beds are filling up. Whatever balance the PCs were trying to strike is not working because the third wave is accelerating," he said in a statement.
"Money can be replaced, lives cannot. We need a circuit-breaker now," Lamont said.
On Thursday, the provincial government's daily pandemic update showed 263 new cases in the Winnipeg health region, 34 in Northern Health, 28 in Prairie Mountain, 23 in Southern Health, and 15 in Interlake-Eastern.
The five-day test positivity rate was 10.4 per cent in Winnipeg, and 9.1 per cent provincewide. Hospital admissions and the number of intensive care patients was also on the rise. There were 185 COVID-19 patients in hospital as of Thursday morning, and 52 of them were in the ICU.
Three of the recently announced deaths were linked to the B.1.1.7 variant that is now dominant in the province: a man in his 50s from Prairie Mountain; and a man in his 60s and a woman in her 70s from Winnipeg. A woman in her 50s from Prairie Mountain region also died.
In total, 986 Manitobans have died of COVID-19.
On Thursday, the province logged 298 new cases involving highly contagious variants. So far, 3,003 cases involving more infectious strains of the virus have been detected in Manitoba, and 1,025 cases are active. The majority of the cases are B.1.1.7, which has led to the deaths of 16 Manitobans.
More than one-quarter of cases involving highly contagious variants have spread via community transmission.
An outbreak was declared at Lakeshore General Hospital in Ashern.
Katie May reports on courts, crime and justice for the Free Press.
After 20 years of reporting on the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home, Carol moved to the legislature bureau in early 2020.