In Manitoba's darkest days, the premier chooses to cast shade

Manitoba's premier is lambasting the U.S. president — and asking the Canadian prime minister for help — while his province stops short of doing everything it can to combat the pandemic's third wave.

As Brian Pallister blames Joe Biden and asks Justin Trudeau for help, Manitoba could still do more on its own

Premier Brian Pallister held a holiday-weekend news conference Saturday to decry U.S. President Joe Biden's alleged unwillingness to send vaccines across the border. Ninety minutes later, the province announced a COVID-19 case count that set a new weekly infection record. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

When Premier Brian Pallister says Manitobans are living through the darkest days of the pandemic, there are plenty of measures to back that up.

For starters, there are more COVID-19 infections in this province than ever before. On Saturday, the seven-day average daily case count rose to 482, a new pandemic record.

That works out to a daily infection rate of 34.3 new COVID cases each day for every 100,000 people, the highest infection rate among Canadian provinces and U.S. states. Alberta is a distant second, with 20.6.

New infections today lead to more hospitalizations down the road. During this third wave of the pandemic, a greater proportion of COVID hospital patients require intensive care.

The number of COVID-19 patients in Manitoba ICUs hit a record 80 earlier this week and is technically higher now. There were 74 COVID-19 patients in Manitoba ICUs on Saturday and seven more Manitoba patients in Ontario hospitals, some now located as far away as Ottawa.

In living memory, Manitoba has never had to ship ICU patients out of province simply to relieve the pressure on hospitals that are now struggling to deliver basic care. Hence Pallister's request on Friday for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to send Manitoba nurses and respiratory therapists.

No fewer than three Manitoba COVID-19 patients have been transported from Winnipeg ICUs to Thunder Bay Regional Health Sciences Centre. (Thunder Bay Regional Health Sciences Centre)

As well, Winnipeg's five-day test positivity rate reached a new pandemic record of 16.8 per cent Saturday.

In other words, one out of six of people in the Winnipeg region who got tested due to COVID-19 symptoms or exposure over the past five days found out they contracted the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

That indicates the virus is spreading widely throughout the community in a manner that is very difficult to control.

It would be reasonable to suggest that getting the spread of the virus under control would be the top priority for the province.

Pallister repeats call for U.S. vaccines

On Saturday, the premier made it his top priority to repeat a two-week-old claim U.S. President Joe Biden is somehow preventing Manitobans from getting vaccinated as quickly as they might otherwise.

"I'm advocating for the United States and the White House in particular to get out of the way and let the states and provinces co-operate on getting vaccines that are in freezers in the United States up into Canada, into arms," Pallister said Saturday morning during a news briefing.

"Thus far, President Biden has said no. I say, 'Let's go, Joe.' The right answer is yes. We need your help, and we need it now."

Pallister initially said he wanted the White House to approve vaccine shipments  from North Dakota on May 7.  The United States has since committed to sending vaccines to other countries, including Canada.

Nonetheless, Pallister claimed Saturday Manitoba could send freezer trucks to the U.S. and return the same day with doses that could see 100,000 more Manitobans receive a vaccine dose within a week.

"The best way to beat back the third wave is vaccines. Vaccines are the key," Pallister said.

Vaccines won't address immediate crisis

Eventually, he is correct. As the vaccination rate in Manitoba rises, COVID-19 will have fewer options to spread.

That, however, will do nothing to solve Manitoba's hospital crisis in time to provide adequate care to Manitobans now.

A Winnipeg ICU physician says Manitobans who are deemed to be essential workers have no choice right now but to risk exposure to the coronavirus. (Mikaela Mackenzie/Winnipeg Free Press/The Canadian Press)

Even if Pallister somehow managed to procure enough vaccine doses for all 1.38 million Manitobans and get them into arms tomorrow, COVID-19 case counts would remain high for weeks and hospitals would struggle even longer.

That's because it takes weeks for people to build up antibodies after they get vaccinated. In that time, more people exposed right now will get sick and more people sick right now will require hospitalization.

Sadly, Manitoba can not vaccinate its way out of an immediate hospital crisis. The time for long-term solutions ended in early April, when COVID-19 cases in this province began an exponential rise.

When the top priority in this province would appear to be staunching the spread of COVID-19 in Winnipeg, the epicentre of the pandemic, non-essential businesses remain open, office workplaces are not compelled to allow their employees to work from home and manufacturers are not taking a break to give the alleged circuit breaker more teeth.

Only the province could order such measures, which were implemented in part during an April 2020 first wave that turned to be a ripple in Manitoba.

Instead, the province has opted against the most effective measures at its disposal during its greatest time of need.

The premier and public health officials routinely state Manitobans are simply not following the rules at a time when community spread makes it difficult for people to avoid the virus in the workplace and elsewhere.

Dr. Kendiss Olafson, a Winnipeg ICU physician, said Manitobans who are deemed to be essential workers have no choice right now but to risk exposure.

"I find that a vast majority of our patients are people who are trying to follow the rules and have been very conscious but they are contracting COVID in their workplace or in the community," she said in an interview.

It is very likely the current outbreak will recede in Manitoba some time in June, thanks to a combination of vaccinations and existing public health measures.

That doesn't change the fact Manitoba's premier is throwing shade at a U.S. president — and asking the Canadian prime minister for help — while this province declines to do everything it could to combat a third wave that's been gaining momentum for eight weeks.


Bartley Kives

Senior reporter, CBC Manitoba

Bartley Kives joined CBC Manitoba in 2016. Prior to that, he spent three years at the Winnipeg Sun and 18 at the Winnipeg Free Press, writing about politics, music, food and outdoor recreation. He's the author of the Canadian bestseller A Daytripper's Guide to Manitoba: Exploring Canada's Undiscovered Province and co-author of both Stuck in the Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg and Stuck In The Middle 2: Defining Views of Manitoba.


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