There is no evidence that Premier Brian Pallister is a gambler. He's never been spotted hunkered down in front of a VLT and there are no rumours about high-powered poker games at his Wellington Crescent mansion.

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Opinion

There is no evidence that Premier Brian Pallister is a gambler. He's never been spotted hunkered down in front of a VLT and there are no rumours about high-powered poker games at his Wellington Crescent mansion.

And yet, deep into his battle with COVID-19, Pallister is suddenly demonstrating a willingness to gamble with the lives of his citizens.

In case you hadn't noticed, Pallister clearly believes he can vaccinate enough Manitobans to both avoid another total lockdown and stave off a collapse of the province's health-care system which is straining under the pandemic's third wave.

Looking at province's current case counts and hospital admissions, that's not a good bet.

Manitoba currently has the highest daily COVID-19 infection rate per capita in Canada. Intensive-care admissions have already exceeded the peak experienced in last fall's deadly outbreak and are approaching the worst-case scenarios in provincial pandemic models.

Progress is being made on vaccinations.

Over the weekend, the Pallister government announced that 50 per cent of adult Manitobans (18 or older) had received at least one dose of the vaccine. Even though that is an admirable accomplishment, and one that exceeds the expectations many of us had even a few weeks ago, it is still nowhere near where we need to be to eliminate social and economic restrictions.

It's important to remember this accomplishment applies only to Manitobans over the age of 18. When you consider Manitoba's total population, only 41 per cent have received at least one dose and only six per cent have received two doses.

Epidemiologists believe we have to fully vaccinate at least 70 per cent of all citizens, not just adults, to achieve some form of herd immunity. Some have suggested the real number is closer to 80 per cent.

When you're just over halfway to the lowest possible threshold for herd immunity, it's pretty foolish to start wagering the health and well-being of the entire population on the tenuous idea that vaccines are going to get us out of what is now the worst COVID-19 outbreak in Canada.

The only comfort the Pallister government has right now is that it is hardly alone in adopting this foolish strategy.

Governments all over the world, desperate for some sense of social and economic normalcy, are refusing to impose deeper lockdowns or lifting restrictions against the pleadings of scientists and medical professionals.

Premier Brian Pallister and public health officials continue to defend our current slate of restrictions as being enough to curb the current climbing caseload. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press files)</p>

Premier Brian Pallister and public health officials continue to defend our current slate of restrictions as being enough to curb the current climbing caseload. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press files)

In the northeast U.S., many states are starting to lift restrictions in lock-step with a dramatic reduction in the number of cases, a trend that epidemiologists believe has been triggered in part by rising vaccination rates.

However, in most of these states, first-dose vaccination rates are only slightly above 50 per cent of the entire population, with only about a third have received two doses. Those numbers fall well below the minimum threshold of 70 per cent needed to achieve some sort of herd immunity.

Public health experts are warning that COVID-19 variants, which spread faster and are more likely to attack younger people, could make vaccination efforts less effective in the short-term.

The same scenario exists in the United Kingdom, where Prime Minister Boris Johnson has begun removing restrictions after the number of new, daily cases and hospital admissions dropped dramatically.

Starting this week, people across most of Britain are being allowed to enjoy a meal or a proper pint indoors at their favourite public house, visit a movie theatre or museum, while sports stadiums are to be allowed to host up to 10,000 fans.

But even as the restrictions are eased, scientists are warning that COVID-19 variants could very well upend attempts at reopening the economy long before vaccination rates achieve herd immunity. Right now, about 36 million, or two-thirds of adults across the U.K. have received at least one dose of vaccine. However, that is only 54 per cent of total population.

The U.K.'s Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling issued a report last week warning it was quite likely that easing the lockdown now "would lead to a substantial resurgence of hospitalizations."

Back in Manitoba, Pallister and public health officials continue to defend our current slate of restrictions as being enough to curb the current climbing caseload. However, we need about one more week to see if limits on retail capacities and social interactions, and the closure of bars and restaurants, will beat back this latest outbreak.

The greater concern for all Manitobans should be the Pallister government's reaction if these restrictions prove successful.

If past practice is any guide, Pallister will start the process of paring back restrictions as case counts recede. And if past results are any indication, that will likely set us up for a fourth wave.

It's like we're trapped on the COVID-19 gerbil wheel; the faster we try to run towards normalcy, the faster we put ourselves back into a public health crisis.

For now, we all have to live with Pallister's risky wager. In this poker game, he holds all the cards and calls all the shots, just as he has throughout the pandemic.

However, the premier ought to know that the most successful gamblers win more than they lose by learning from the bad bets they make. And this is a really bad bet.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Dan Lett

Dan Lett
Columnist

Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.

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