Manitoba’s new COVID strategy ignores vulnerable people, hospital systems, say scientists

January 13, 2022
Manitoba's new COVID strategy ignores vulnerable people, hospital systems, say scientists
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Some scientists and health-care professionals say Manitoba’s new plan for handling COVID-19 ignores vulnerable people and hospital systems.

“I think we are unprepared from the health care side for the tsunami of admissions and hospital demands that are going to occur if we just kind of let it go,” said Dr. Philippe Lagacé-Wiens, a medical microbiologist at St. Boniface Hospital.

“There’s still enough people who are frail and will develop complications, or who are unimmunized that will really flood the health-care system. And nothing I have heard so far is satisfying my concerns about the capacity of the health-care system.”

On Wednesday, Premier Heather Stefanson announced the province is changing its COVID-19 strategy. Instead of trying to contain the surge caused by the highly contagious Omicron variant, public health and provincial officials will try to manage risk in the community.

“Every single Manitoban has to take it upon themselves to protect themselves during this,” said Stefanson.

“The government can’t protect everybody out there. You know, people have to learn to protect themselves. We have to learn to live with it.”

Heather Stefanson said the province is taking advice on how to handle COVID-19 not just from public health, but from other communities like those in business. (David Lipnowski/The Canadian Press)

Stefanson also said Manitoba’s policies aren’t being driven solely by public health, but also by other people, like those in the business community.

Lagacé-Wiens said if the province is going to use that approach, officials need to be prepared for the consequences and have a clear plan to support the health-care system as more patients come in.

“How are we going to create hundreds more hospital beds with limited staff who are away sick? How are we going to manage ICU beds should they become overwhelmed again while the rest of Canada is in the same crunch as we are?” he said.

“I’m not hearing a lot of that. That’s really concerning to me when on the other side, they’re saying, ‘Well, we just have to let this run its course.'”

Reaching for white flag: epidemiologist

The strategy to move away from trying to contain the virus shows the province is almost “conceding” to COVID-19, according to Nazeem Muhajarine, professor of community health and epidemiology at the University of Saskatchewan’s college of medicine.

“You’re not waving the white flag yet, but it seems like we are reaching for it,” he said.

University of Saskatchewan epidemiologist Nazeem Muhajarine says Manitoba should still be putting in public health restrictions to slow the spread of Omicron. (Chanss Lagaden/CBC)

Muhajarine said Manitoba could take a hint from provinces like Ontario and Quebec that have taken more “aggressive and proactive” measures to try and keep Omicron at bay — including stricter public health measures.

He said efforts to keep cases low are still needed to protect people who can’t get vaccinated, and to ease the workload on health-care workers.

“We cannot just sort of say we are going to let Omicron rip through the population and then we are going to figure out how to manage the losses,” he said. “I think that’s just too high a price to pay.”

As for the premier’s remarks that Manitobans should be able to “protect themselves,” Muhajarine said that’s not how democracies work.

“We need leaders to lead people. We don’t need leaders to punt it right back to us and say it’s up to us to do what is right,” he said.

“This is why we put people in leadership positions through our democratic race. We expect them to look after the collective welfare and good of the people they represent. To say anything else — to do anything else — is simply an abdication of that contract that we have with our leaders.”

Kids back in class Monday

With kids going back to school on Monday, immunologist and parent Deanna Santer worries how the province’s approach will affect in-class learning.

“They’re not really contact tracing anymore, right? So we’re kind of on our own, which is also really important in schools if you want to know if there’s a case in our class,” said Santer, an assistant professor in immunology at the University of Manitoba.

Deanna Santer is an assistant professor in immunology at the University of Manitoba. (Supplied by Deanna Santer)

“I know teachers will probably try their best, but it’s going to be hard until we see how this goes in the next few weeks.”

Santer has two children, both under 10. She said vaccines are really helping with Omicron, but it’s the unvaccinated she’s concerned about in this wave.

Provincial data suggests unvaccinated Manitobans are 21 times more likely to be admitted into an ICU and 17 times more likely to die from COVID-19. But many of those people, Santer said, aren’t choosing to be unvaccinated.

“I know that they’re trying to use those numbers to say most people will be fine, but I don’t want to ignore kids less than five, or elderly people. We cannot predict who is going to have a serious outcome,” she said.

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