Manitoba is providing far less information on cases of highly contagious coronavirus variants than other provinces, adding to existing concerns around transparency in the pandemic.
"People have a general expectation that there are certain kinds of baseline information that will be shared," said Michelle Driedger, a community health professor at the University of Manitoba.
"Transparency has been a general issue in the handling of COVID-19 in Manitoba, all the way along," said Driedger, who specializes in public health communication.
On Tuesday, Manitoba’s chief public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin and Premier Brian Pallister announced a further loosening of pandemic restrictions, and urged the public to be cautious due to variants.
But both failed to divulge Manitoba’s first two cases of the variant originally detected in South Africa, which appears somewhat resistant to vaccines, along with another new case of the British variant.
That information came out one hour later in a bulletin that did not disclose when those cases emerged, how long they took to detect, whether they resulted from travel, and if these people infected each other — details other provinces are reporting.
As of Tuesday, Manitoba had logged eight confirmed variant cases, including recoveries.
Saskatchewan, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick have each reported six or seven variant cases, and all have provided a rough timeframe of when the COVID-19 sample was collected.
“People have a general expectation that there are certain kinds of baseline information that will be shared” — Michelle Driedger, a community health professor at the University of Manitoba
Nova Scotia has detailed which variant cases are linked to each other, while New Brunswick has specified which cases involved travel outside the province.
Meanwhile, Saskatchewan and New Brunswick have also announced presumptive variant cases before they were confirmed. Manitoba has chosen to only do so for First Nations or small towns.
The Manitoba government argued this can help smaller communities isolate sooner and prevent rumours from circulating. Officials say announcing unconfirmed variant cases in cities such as Winnipeg could cause unnecessary concern.
Other provinces have curtailed the details they report on variant cases, but only did so when dozens of cases started emerging at the same time.
Manitoba public health officials contend it made more sense to make this shift now, instead of curtailing information at a later date.
“We appreciate the public has a significant interest in how the province is managing cases related to the variants of concern, and we agree that sharing as much information as possible helps the public understand the current situation and assess their risk of COVID-19.” — Provincial spokeswoman
Officials have noted that logging each variant case means collating data from interviews with nurses and as many as three labs, then figuring out what can be divulged without identifying those infected.
"We appreciate the public has a significant interest in how the province is managing cases related to the variants of concern, and we agree that sharing as much information as possible helps the public understand the current situation and assess their risk of COVID-19," a provincial spokeswoman wrote Wednesday.
The province said it’s trying to balance privacy, as people could be stigmatized if they’re identified as bringing a variant into Manitoba, which could deter others from being honest with contact-tracing nurses.
But Driedger argues it’s worth giving the public more information on when variant cases emerged, whether they spread to other people and if everyone has recovered — at least until variants start spreading in large numbers.
"Because (variants) are relatively new within the Manitoba context, more detail is probably better than less," Driedger said.
"It does have an impact, at really kind of nudging us into ensuring we’re really strictly following things, and being as careful as possible."
Driedger said the scope of pandemic information released to the public is generally decided by the elected government, with the advice of health officials.
She said providing every piece of information to the public without any discretion would clearly violate privacy, and likely confuse people. But she argued the Progressive Conservative government should be more upfront about its handling of COVID-19.
Province's delayed request to private lab behind COVID variant detection lagClick to Expand
Posted: 7:44 PM Mar. 1, 2021
Manitoba's weeks-long lag in detecting highly contagious COVID-19 variants stemmed from a delay in asking the private lab conducting nearly half the tests to send along samples, the Free Press has learned.
It wasn’t until Feb. 7 that the Manitoba government asked Dynacare to send COVID-19 samples on a daily basis to the Cadham Provincial Laboratory so they could be screened for variants of concern.
For example, the province never explained why it took 18 days to detect the first variant case since it emerged, leading the Free Press to ask questions in emails and press conferences over the course of three weeks.
Eventually, private firm Dynacare revealed the province hadn’t asked for samples to be screened for variants on a daily basis until Feb. 7.
The province has been evasive in past months about things ranging from how many care-home inspections occur through video calls, to how many people are doing contact tracing.
"It’s been a lot of constantly seeking to get clarification and answers, and eventually something comes forward, whether it comes forward from public health... or government, or because some information has been leaked to the media," Driedger said.
"It’s this constantly having to return with the same question before getting answers, that creates a certain challenge in trying to maintain public confidence and trust in what is being provided."
To that end, the province says it’s now working on a way to publish more data on variant cases in recurring reports.
"At this time, we’re looking into what can be provided consistently on a periodic basis in the longer term, and hope to have more details about what this might look like soon," a provincial spokeswoman wrote.