Opinion

There is no mystery behind the latest surge of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations; the epidemiology was laid bare weeks ago. New variants of concern, which are more contagious and deadly, have been circulating widely in the province since at least early April. They spread faster and cause more severe illness among younger adults.

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There is no mystery behind the latest surge of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations; the epidemiology was laid bare weeks ago. New variants of concern, which are more contagious and deadly, have been circulating widely in the province since at least early April. They spread faster and cause more severe illness among younger adults.

Their impact has been playing out in other jurisdictions for weeks, including in Ontario, where critical care admissions have tripled compared with the second wave.

It was a foregone conclusion that, absent stricter public health measures, the same would occur here.

Manitoba’s political and clinical leaders were warned. In addition to an explosion of hospitalizations in Ontario and other parts of Canada (including Alberta), local infectious disease experts and critical-care providers begged the government to act weeks ago; through letter writing campaigns, media interviews and social media posts.

The response? Crickets.

Beyond a few modest public health restrictions added last week, there was little, if any, action taken. Now, provincial officials act surprised at how fast cases are rising and how quickly patients are piling up in ICUs.

Beyond a few modest public health restrictions added last week, there was little, if any, action taken. Now, provincial officials act surprised at how fast cases are rising and how quickly patients are piling up in ICUs.

"How we got there was very quick and quite honestly, unanticipated to a degree," said one clinical leader from Shared Health Friday, during a technical briefing with news media (the person was speaking on background and cannot be named).

Unanticipated? The clinical data from other jurisdictions was crystal clear; there was no reason to believe Manitoba would avoid the same fate unless drastic action was taken. The warning signs pointed in the same direction: a sharp increase in the average number of contacts per infected person, a rising test positivity rate and an alarming increase in the number of younger adults admitted to ICU.

Still, the province dithered.

Two weeks ago, just over one COVID-19 patient a day, on average, was admitted to ICU, Shared Health said. By last week, that increased to six or seven a day. Last Sunday, there were 10 in a 24-hour period.

Brian Pallister's government gambled that immunizing enough people over the age of 70 would dampen hospitalizations, even as new variants spread.

MIKE DEAL / FREE PRESS FILES

Brian Pallister's government gambled that immunizing enough people over the age of 70 would dampen hospitalizations, even as new variants spread.

Waiting for the situation to get that bad was a fatal error.

It’s unclear who ultimately made the decision to wait, or how much political influence was brought to bear. Premier Brian Pallister said Friday it’s easy to be a "Monday morning quarterback" and second-guess government after the fact.

He misses the point. This isn’t about second-guessing. The evidence was overwhelming that unless the government acted quickly with stricter measures, infections would soar. This was incompetence.

The Pallister government gambled that immunizing enough people over the age of 70 would dampen hospitalizations, even as new variants spread. It was a bad bet. It ignored a key variable: new strains target younger people, the vast majority of whom are not vaccinated. Only 33 per cent of Manitobans in their 40s have received a shot; 16 per cent in their 30s have.

Six of 56 COVID-19 patients in ICU Friday were under the age of 40. About half of COVID-19 patients admitted to hospital over the past week were under 50.

Pallister continued to blame Manitobans who refuse to follow public health orders for the rise in cases. He won't accept an iota of responsibility for his government’s actions.

A small percentage of the public will always ignore public health orders, or fail to follow them diligently. That’s a given. If Pallister hasn’t figured that out yet, he hasn’t been paying attention (or he has trouble understanding basic public policy concepts). The right level of public health restrictions are the ones that work, even when a small portion of society ignores them. Those are the measures that should have been enacted last month.

Dr. Brent Roussin, the chief provincial public health officer, announced stricter measures Friday evening. They will bring infection rates down, but it will take time. Those actions should have been taken at least two weeks ago. Failure to do so will cost lives.

tom.brodbeck@freepress.mb.ca

Tom Brodbeck

Tom Brodbeck
Columnist

Tom has been covering Manitoba politics since the early 1990s and joined the Winnipeg Free Press news team in 2019.

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