As Manitoba faces a dramatically rising second-wave of COVID-19, the province is scaling back the information it provides.
And what it has been releasing falls short of the transparency seen in other jurisdictions.
Researchers, unions and journalists say they’ve been struggling to pry out basic information they need to assess how the Manitoba is handling the pandemic.
For example, the province doesn’t publish information on how many tests it has done in nursing homes or schools, which helps indicate whether enough testing is taking place in vulnerable sectors.
Officials in Ontario, Quebec and Alberta have provided this data.
And when asked this month how they inspect care homes, those three provinces answered days earlier than Manitoba.
Last week, the province refused to provide an estimate of the number of people doing contact tracing, and it wouldn't say whether any of the 1,153 Manitobans who volunteered in the spring have been retained, while the province spends an undisclosed amount on out-of-province tracers.
Manitoba had previously disclosed how well it was doing in reaching a COVID-19 patient’s close contacts within a day of their test result, but stopped providing the metric during the current second wave.
The province is reporting outdated information on the number of new cases, with the daily bulletin listing lab tests and diagnoses as far back as 14 days prior. That makes it impossible to accurately assess the growth of cases and the shifting impact on the health-care system.
Michelle Driedger, a community health professor at the University of Manitoba, said public-health officials try to tailor the information they share so it’s actually understandable, instead of just overwhelming people with data.
At the same time, she said transparency is key to helping people understand the reason for public-health rules.
"When you see some jurisdictions reporting at a different level of detail than in your own, it makes you wonder 'what aren't we being told?’" she said.
"If people don’t have a good enough understanding of where things are at, who’s being affected in terms of age groups and impacts, (then) it’s going to be hard to translate public-health guidance and make it resonate."
Meanwhile, the Health Department is flouting transparency laws by keeping just one staff member assigned to handle freedom-of-information requests, even though there was a backlog before the pandemic.
The Health Department has dedicated more staff to its communication team, but not at the same ratio of the increase in media requests.
The team went from 1.5 full-time equivalents in March to four. Between March and October, the department received 880 requests, compared with 229 in the previous eight months (July 2019- February 2020).
When receiving questions by email, Manitoba spokespeople have suggested reporters instead ask their questions at the regular press conferences held by the chief provincial public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin. News organizations are, in most cases, limited to asking two questions.
This month, amid mounting criticism of Manitoba’s pandemic response, the province told journalists to back off.
When asked how many cases resulted from a high-school outbreak, and which hospital put a surgical team into isolation, reporters were chided for posing the questions.
"Media play a role in ensuring a balance between open and transparent updates about exposure that poses a risk to the public and the creation of unnecessary fear when the risk to (Manitobans) is low," reads a statement from the Health Department, which also forbids media from naming any spokespeople.
"We implore you and your colleagues to also do your part to ensure that members of the public do not feel fearful about seeking care," reads the response to the hospital query.
This week, the province said it won’t publish the ratio of tests that come back positive for the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority on days when there aren’t press conferences, for fear of journalists taking the number out of context.
"I find that kind of surprising, given that the WRHA is a huge region; it's the vast majority of the province's population," Driedger said. "I don't know what context necessarily has to go into that."
Manitoba NDP health critic Uzoma Asagwara said the public has made sacrifices in order to keep COVID-19 rates under control, and thus deserves data to assess how officials are doing.
"You can't fix what you don’t measure, and what you don't assess transparently," said the MLA, who’s particularly concerned that care-home inspection reports aren’t shared with the public.
"The public has a right to that information and. quite frankly, there are experts across the health-care system who need this information in order to effectively come up with policy and strategy."
Manitoba Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont said the province is undermining the role of a free press in an effort to avoid scrutiny.
"The government is actually withholding information about its own numbers," he said.
"That is absolutely unbelievable; it's shameful at a number of levels."
— With files from Danielle Da Silva, Katie May and Michael Pereira