Opinion

When the provincial government releases its blueprint for reopening the economy, it's critical it give the public as much detail as possible.

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When the provincial government releases its blueprint for reopening the economy, it's critical it give the public as much detail as possible.

Premier Brian Pallister said Wednesday government will unveil plans next week to start easing social-distancing measures. He gave no specifics on which businesses or organizations will open first, or what guidelines will be used to determine how restrictions will be loosened. He said the province is still finalizing those details.

But when government officials do release those plans, it will be important for them to share as much information as possible, including what criteria they plan to follow.

So far, the province has been vague about which benchmarks need to be reached before they can start lifting controls. That’s understandable. For the most part, they haven’t determined that yet. However, Dr. Brent Roussin, the province’s chief public health officer, gave some hints this week about what some of those criteria will be.

For starters, the number of new cases of COVID-19 will have to remain low for a period of three to four weeks, said Roussin. He hasn’t defined what "low" means. But it appears if current numbers hold for that length of time, it would satisfy that requirement.

The number of new cases per day have been at or below four since April 12. There’s been a daily average of 1.55 new cases since then. Presumably if that continues into the first week of May, the low-case criteria would be met.

So far, the province has been vague about which benchmarks need to be reached before they can start lifting controls. That’s understandable. For the most part, they haven’t determined that yet.

The province will also consider the degree to which the virus is spreading through community transmission. Right now about 13 per cent of reported cases have spread through community transmission, said Roussin. The rest has been travel-related. That number would also have to remain low before controls are eased.

That’s not all Roussin and his team will consider before lifting restrictions. They're part of a set of variables the province will assess together, he said.

For example, before easing restrictions, the province must ensure there's an adequate supply of personal protective equipment – like masks, gloves and gowns – for health-care staff. That could be a challenge since there have been shortages in some areas. Nevertheless, the province will have a range in mind when deciding if inventory levels are sufficient. They need to share that detail with the public next week.

Dr. Brent Roussin, chief provincial public health officer, during the provinces COVID-19 update briefing at the Manitoba Legislative building. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Dr. Brent Roussin, chief provincial public health officer, during the provinces COVID-19 update briefing at the Manitoba Legislative building. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Testing capacity will also have to be expanded, said Roussin. Countries that have succeeded in limiting the spread of the virus — like South Korea and Greece — have done aggressive testing and contact tracing. Roussin says it’s imperative testing is increased when restrictions are eased in order to improve surveillance. Eventually, the province would like to test all symptomatic people.

Roussin said the gradual opening of the economy will occur in phases. The first phase will see the opening of some businesses that were deemed non-essential. If, after a period of monitoring, all goes well, they’ll move to the next phase and open more businesses (while ensuring each business establishes appropriate social-distancing measures).

Roussin has said he expects reported cases will rise to some degree when restrictions are loosened. He should tell the public how much the province is willing to accept. If numbers start to rise by 10 or 20 a day, for example, can the reopening continue? That’s important information the public has a right to know.

These guidelines won't be set in stone. When assessing multiple variables at once, judgment calls have to be made. Roussin said his office will have to adapt as new information becomes available.

"There isn’t a clear guideline for any of this," he said.

No one wants the province to move too fast on easing controls. It would be disastrous to undo all of the good work Manitobans have done over the past several weeks. However, the public needs to know what the rules of engagement are. They need to be shown a roadmap, even if that map changes over time (which it likely will). The public has demonstrated great patience and co-operation. But by next week, they need to see a light at the end of the tunnel.

Tom Brodbeck

Tom Brodbeck
Columnist

Tom has been covering Manitoba politics since the early 1990s and joined the Winnipeg Free Press news team in 2019.

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