The spread of misinformation about COVID-19 has led Manitoba officials to publicly denounce groups seeking to convince Canadians the novel coronavirus isn't real.

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The spread of misinformation about COVID-19 has led Manitoba officials to publicly denounce groups seeking to convince Canadians the novel coronavirus isn't real.

Premier Brian Pallister and chief provincial public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin used their platforms Tuesday to speak out against factions of Manitobans spreading conspiracy theories on social media or at in-person demonstrations.

One anti-mask group has been planning weekly rallies that have attracted more than 100 people; another urged its supporters to film "empty" waiting rooms at local hospitals in an effort to suggest COVID-19 patients don't exist.

Roussin began a news conference saying he needed to dispel rumours aimed to cast doubt on lab testing, after false claims circulated on social media alleging COVID-19 swabs were being declared positive without being processed.

Anti-mask protestors from the Hugs Over Masks group attend a rally in Steinbach on Saturday. (Daniel Crump / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Anti-mask protestors from the Hugs Over Masks group attend a rally in Steinbach on Saturday. (Daniel Crump / Winnipeg Free Press files)

"This is nonsense; this is not at all true," he said.

Roussin expressed dismay when asked about concerns some people may be recording videos at ERs.

At least two videos, one apparently taken at Winnipeg's Victoria General Hospital and another at Steinbach's Bethesda Regional Health Centre, have been posted on Facebook by a group which the Free Press has decided not to name.

The group that posted the videos in support of the Hugs Over Masks rally that took place Saturday in Steinbach and featured speakers who repeatedly made false claims about the virus — including it could be cured with zinc. Some suggested Manitoba politicians and public health officials were being paid to lie about COVID-19, and the news media couldn't be trusted.

"For whatever reason, there's a group of people who are desperately trying to convince the public that COVID doesn't exist. But you can see from our hospitals, you can see from these deaths, you can see from our ICUs, you can see from countless health-care workers," Roussin said.

An anti-mask group is urging people to go hospital waiting rooms and record them. Two videos have been posted to Facebook, one from Steinbach, and this one from the Victoria General Hospital. (Facebook)

An anti-mask group is urging people to go hospital waiting rooms and record them. Two videos have been posted to Facebook, one from Steinbach, and this one from the Victoria General Hospital. (Facebook)

On Tuesday, the province reported seven more deaths and 270 new cases of the virus.

"Somebody videotaping a quiet waiting room for a few minutes is meaningless. We have to keep our focus: COVID is here. We'd all love for it not to be, but it is. So we need to stay firm, we need to stay focused, and then we can start bringing down these numbers."

Earlier Tuesday, Pallister was asked what the province can do to prevent future gatherings like the rally in Steinbach that had more than 100 people not wearing face masks.

The premier has said attendees can expect to receive fines in the mail based on their licence plate numbers. He suggested more enforcement might come into play if the same group follows through on plans to gather at Costco grocery stores Saturday.

"You can't prevent people from gathering if they're social distancing outside with proper spacing. I don't know how we're going to be able to do that," Pallister said.

"But I do know that tickets are going to be issued as a consequence of last weekend, and the deterrent will be felt by some of those people who were at that event because they were disrespecting public health rules. And I do know that enforcement will be very likely made available for such an event, should it occur in the future."

The fact Manitoba's top officials have to spend time dispelling rumours and false claims in the middle of a pandemic should be concerning for all of us, says a local epidemiologist who has studied public opinion on face mask use.

Anti-mask groups have encouraged people to go to local hospitals, such as the Victoria General Hospital (above), and record waiting rooms. (Phil Hossack / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Anti-mask groups have encouraged people to go to local hospitals, such as the Victoria General Hospital (above), and record waiting rooms. (Phil Hossack / Winnipeg Free Press files)

"There's only so much time in a day, and do we really want our senior public health official in the province taking headspace and time to respond to what really, proportionally, is a tiny group of people with a preposterous message? But because of social media, it gets attention," said Cynthia Carr, founder of EPI Research.

Carr said conspiracy theories thrive in times of uncertainty; the more anxious people get, the less able they are to cope, and if they have someone they trust feeding them misinformation, they're more likely to believe it.

"People listen to the people they know and the people they trust. So if your local doctor or your pastor or your community leader or your parent tells you something that's totally different from what everybody else tells you, you will still be more likely to defer to that person because you trusted them."

katie.may@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @thatkatiemay

Katie May

Katie May
Reporter

Katie May reports on courts, crime and justice for the Free Press.