For 151 days, Manitoba’s COVID-19 command structure sat inactive.

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For 151 days, Manitoba’s COVID-19 command structure sat inactive.

During those five months, case counts spiked from the single digits into the thousands, the number of Manitobans lost to the pandemic grew tenfold, and the province gained the dubious distinction of having the highest infection rate per capita in the country.

Not until Oct. 30 — the day public health officials announced 480 more Manitobans had been infected with the novel coronavirus, and ordered a near-shutdown of the provincial capital — did the government reconvene its pandemic command structure.

The move comes at a time of mounting public criticism of the province’s handling of the novel coronavirus response, as a second wave threatens to overwhelm critical care resources in Manitoba. In a letter dated Nov. 1, more than 200 physicians warned Manitoba is in "grave peril" unless more emergency funding and government resources are directed to stop the spike in cases.

The command structure initially went live in February 2020. Officially titled the Unified Health Incident Management COVID-19 Structure, the ad hoc body was created, in part, to allow for greater co-ordination between the agencies tasked with handling Manitoba’s pandemic response.

"It creates a planning cycle that allows everyone to know what’s going to happen next." ‐ Jack Lindsay, chair of emergency studies at Brandon University

Jack Lindsay, chair of emergency studies at Brandon University, said such command structures "grew out of experiences with wildfires and other fire-ground activities," which require a response from multiple agencies, often covering a large geographic area.

The command structure improves co-ordination between the agencies involved, Lindsay said, and formalizes proper and effective channels of communication.

"It also develops a planning cycle. We are usually talking about an operational period, usually not longer than 24 hours, where we say, ‘OK, over the next day, what are we going to accomplish? What do we need to accomplish that? How did we do yesterday?’" Lindsay said.

"It creates a planning cycle that allows everyone to know what’s going to happen next."

According to a memo penned by Manitoba’s deputy minister of health, Karen Herd — which was leaked to the Free Press — the province chose to disband the COVID-19 command structure June 1, due to low case counts of the virus. The memo was sent to the CEOs of regional health authorities Oct. 29.

"We now find ourselves in the situation that requires us to once again enact an (incident management system) to meet the escalating health system requirements and increased co-ordination required," Herd wrote.

"On the first day of code red, when we’ve been in code orange for a month, this government is suddenly saying ‘You know what? We should really start up the command centre today.’ It’s absolutely shameful." ‐ Manitoba Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont

The memo ended by stating, effective 9 a.m. the following morning, Oct. 30, the pandemic command structure would be reactivated. Moving forward, it would meet three times per week, Herd wrote.

Speaking to reporters Monday, Manitoba Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont said it’s "unbelievably incompetent" the Tory government dragged its feet as long as it did on reactivating the COVID-19 command structure.

"Why was it deactivated?" Lamont asked.

"On the first day of code red, when we’ve been in code orange for a month, this government is suddenly saying ‘You know what? We should really start up the command centre today.’ It’s absolutely shameful."

In an interview Friday with the Free Press, Dr. Amir Attaran, professor of public health at the University of Ottawa, said he was shocked the Manitoba government chose to dismantle its command structure in the middle of the pandemic.

"It’s stunning," Attaran said.

In a news release Monday announcing the reactivation, the province noted: "Manitoba’s health system has been working in an integrated way throughout the COVID-19 pandemic."

Premier Brian Pallister said in a written statement: "Reactivating the unified incident command structure and strengthening the government response will help provide clear direction and ensure co-ordinated efforts are put in place to address the situation."

Lindsay said he was surprised the province didn’t take such action until Oct. 30 — a time when community transmission of the virus was widespread, the test-positivity rate was pushing 10 per cent, and outbreaks had been declared in hospitals and nursing homes.

"It’s always better to get ahead of a disaster, and if we saw a surge or second wave coming, it would have been better to restart it earlier," Lindsay said.

He also pointed out it’s difficult to criticize the timing of the decision without knowing what was going on behind the scenes between June 1 and Oct. 30.

"It may have been operating almost exactly the same in everything but name. They may have had the same people talking about the same issues. Without knowing what the case was before or after the transition, it’s very hard to comment on whether that transition happened at the right time," Lindsay said.

"Everyone would like to change their tire right before it blows on the highway, but, oftentimes, we don’t have that opportunity until after."

ryan.thorpe@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @rk_thorpe

Ryan Thorpe

Ryan Thorpe
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Ryan Thorpe likes the pace of daily news, the feeling of a broadsheet in his hands and the stress of never-ending deadlines hanging over his head.

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