Premier Brian Pallister finally acknowledged, after weeks of denial, his government did not adequately prepare for the second wave of COVID-19.
"We weren’t ready for the spike that happened, almost spontaneously, in that early couple of weeks of November," the Manitoba premier said in a year-end interview with The Canadian Press.
That’s the first step in admitting government has a problem.
It seems everyone but Pallister knew the province had failed to plan for an anticipated rise in cases in the fall. However, acknowledging it publicly could be a sign government has learned from its mistakes and is upping its game for the next chapter of the pandemic: the roll-out of the COVID-19 vaccine.
The Pallister government got comfortable when Manitoba's case numbers declined in May. It disbanded the province’s incident command centre in June, and switched focus to its economic recovery plan.
It took its eye off the ball — and it cost Manitobans.
During the summer, Manitoba had among the lowest COVID-19 deaths per capita in the country. As of Dec. 29, it has the second highest, at 48 per 100,000 — well ahead of Ontario (31), Alberta (24), British Columbia (17) and Saskatchewan (13).
That can’t be undone.
The Pallister government has a planning problem. It has trouble anticipating outcomes and generating contingency plans. It suffers from inertia.
When questioned repeatedly last month why it was still allowing households to host up to five visitors, the province said it couldn’t enforce a no-outsiders rule. It wasn’t until caseloads soared (and more people died) government changed its mind and banned socializing between households.
Despite initial claims it couldn’t enforce it, the province eventually handed out dozens of tickets to people who unlawfully gathered at private residences, including 44 last week.
It reacted after the fact; something the Manitoba government has done throughout most of the pandemic. By then, it’s usually too late.
The question now is: how prepared is the Pallister government to co-ordinate the largest immunization program in Manitoba’s history?
Medically speaking, administering a vaccine is a relatively simple procedure. However, immunizing one million people (or more) over the next 10-12 months — including many in remote communities — could be a logistical nightmare if the province doesn’t have its ducks in a row.
Inoculating that many people amidst a pandemic is not something public health can navigate on its own. It requires organizational expertise. Right now, it’s not clear who is providing that expert advice.
The objective of the COVID-19 immunization campaign is not just to offer the vaccine to as many people who want it. The goal is to convince as many Manitobans as possible to get it (experts say herd immunity is achieved when 60 to 70 per cent of the population is immunized) — and to inoculate them as quickly as possible.
Every delay, every bureaucratic fumble could cost lives. Provinces that fall behind risk more COVID-19 infections, greater hospital overcrowding, and, ultimately, higher death rates.
The more disorganized the roll-out, the less willing some may be to get the shot. This is a voluntary program; no one is required to get immunized. It’s critical government administers it as competently as possible.
There’s nothing to suggest it won’t.
It’s concerning the province paused the program for five days over the holidays, given the urgency to get needles in arms. It’s troubling how few answers government has at this point about expected vaccine shipment dates (or which groups are next in line for immunization).
However, there’s no evidence it has mishandled the small supply received so far.
The public won’t know how well government has planned until more-regular shipments arrive. Manitobans can only hope the premier’s recent admission means government will be better prepared than it was for the second wave.
Tom has been covering Manitoba politics since the early 1990s and joined the Winnipeg Free Press news team in 2019.