The biggest takeaway from Manitoba's COVID-19 modelling is public officials have virtually no idea what case counts and hospitalization numbers will be by the end of the month.
They have even less insight into how catastrophic the situation could be in January, if the public lowers its guard over the holidays.
On Friday, chief provincial public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin released four scenarios of where pandemic case counts and hospital utilization could be by Dec. 31.
As expected, it doesn’t tell the public much. They depend on multiple factors, such as what restrictions are in place and how well the public adheres to them. Roussin said he doesn’t even know which of the four scenarios Manitoba is in right now.
The range of possibilities is so broad, the modelling is practically useless.
That’s to be expected at this point in the pandemic.
The SARS-CoV-2 virus is circulating so broadly, it’s impossible to tell how fast and where it will spread. About half of known infections cannot be linked to a source.
While measures have helped suppress transmission, Roussin said he thought the code red restrictions implemented more than three weeks ago would have been more effective by now.
If transmission continues at the current rate, hospitalization numbers will climb further and hospital capacity (including proposed off-site facilities for low-acuity patients) will eventually be reached. There is no plan on what to do after that, at least none that’s been shared publicly.
Public health officials appear to have run out of ideas on how to get a better handle on this crisis. Short of announcing more restrictions next week, there are no new strategies on how to better protect seniors and other vulnerable groups.
The message is the same every day: stay home, wash your hands, don't socialize with people outside your household.
At the same time, provincial officials are sending out mixed signals.
Premier Brian Pallister has repeated the stance most people are complying with public health orders. He says it’s just a few "idiots" causing all the problems.
On Friday, however, Roussin said the province never got the public buy-in it needed in October to bring numbers down. Too many people weren't following the rules, he said. Manitoba will need a high level of compliance in December to get numbers down and relieve pressure on hospitals.
During the same media briefing, Roussin and Shared Health chief nursing officer Lanette Siragusa said current measures are "working" and progress has been made.
"I think we’re moving in the right direction," said Siragusa.
If we’re moving in the right direction, why have hospital numbers continued to climb and why does Manitoba’s test positivity rate remain stubbornly high above 13 per cent (close to twice the national average)?
"We’re moving in the right direction" tells people they should keep doing what they’re doing.
Roussin says Manitoba needs to do more to suppress transmission to protect hospitals, yet he and Siragusa also say it is on the right path.
Which one is it? For a tired public already fed up with months of restrictions, confusing rhetoric could be dangerous.
The problem may get worse over the next few weeks. The temptation for people to visit friends and family in-person over the holidays will be a powerful force. Emotions will be running high Dec. 25.
Some also plan to go west to visit friends and family, because Manitoba doesn't demand a 14-day self-isolation requirement for travel to and from those provinces.
Manitoba's worse-case scenario modelling shows hospitals could be overwhelmed by Dec. 31.
It's anyone's guess how bad it may be by mid-January if we don’t see a more targeted approach to protecting the vulnerable — and a more coherent message on what to do next.
Tom has been covering Manitoba politics since the early 1990s and joined the Winnipeg Free Press news team in 2019.