Manitoba

Leadership lacking in Manitoba as COVID-19 cases surge, Omicron spreads, say bewildered experts

Andrea Carlson was preparing to host a small Christmas Day gathering with members of her extended family. She abruptly cancelled those plans after Manitoba's top doctor implored everyone to curtail their holiday gathering plans Friday.

'Most dangerous series of human-to-human transmission in this province': Dr. Aleeza Gerstein

Cars line up for COVID-19 testing on King Edward Street in Winnipeg earlier this week. As cases surge and Omicron spreads, people are waiting several hours to get their tests and up to four days to see their results. The province on Friday said it has a backlog of 10,000 specimens waiting to be processed. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

Andrea Carlson was preparing to host a small Christmas Day gathering with members of her extended family.

She abruptly cancelled those plans after Manitoba's top doctor implored everyone to curtail their holiday gathering plans Friday.

Manitoba reported a pandemic-high 742 cases of COVID-19 on Friday, with Chief Provincial Public Health Officer Dr. Brent Roussin pointing to the rapid transmission of the Omicron variant fuelling the high case counts.

Instead of gathering with loved ones, Carlson will celebrate with her immediate family of three, connect with extended family via Zoom and drive around to deliver the 15 pounds of turkey she is cooking.

"I'm really sad. I'm tired, but it's the right thing to do," Carlson said.

Dee Pearson isn't changing her family's Christmas plans.

"I get the whole COVID thing but you just don't know when the last time is you're going to be with your family, so that's why we are going to continue to go on," Pearson said.

Larry Tornborough isn't changing his Christmas Day plans. He will be watching football and eating turkey with his friend but believes the province shouldn’t have opened things up as quickly as it did. (Randall McKenzie/CBC)

Larry Tornborough isn't changing his Christmas plans either.

He will be watching football and eating turkey with his friend, but believes the province shouldn't have opened things up as quickly as it did.

"They should have left it as it was … all they've got is people going haywire," Tornborough said.

"One day it's on. One day it's off. You don't know what to do."

What's missing is "authentic leadership" from Premier Heather Stefanson, says Dr. Eric Jacobsohn, an intensive care physician at St. Boniface Hospital and Health Sciences Centre.

Stefanson wasn't part of Friday's press conference — virtually or in person.

Health Minister Audrey Gordon defended the premier's absence.

"What I can say is that I have the full confidence of the premier, as does Dr. [Joss] Reimer and Dr. Roussin to communicate to Manitobans how urgent it is that they follow the public health orders," Gordon said.

Jacobsohn, who is also a cardiac anesthesiologist and professor in the Max Rady College of Medicine at University of Manitoba, estimates the number of cases being reported is between 25 and 30 per cent of the actual cases of COVID-19 the province is adding daily.

Dr. Eric Jacobsohn, a Winnipeg intensive care physician, believes the province needs to issue a lockdown order to prevent further spread of COVID-19 and further deaths that may result from the virus. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

If that's true, those 742 cases would be approaching 3,000 — exorbitantly higher than the 1,000 cases a day Roussin previously warned Manitoba might experience. 

Jacobsohn says the fact the province is pleading with people to stay home, reduce gathering sizes and limit the number of functions they go to is a statement.

"We need to lock down. The question is why aren't we locking down? It's what authentic leadership is about," Jacobsohn told CBC News. "It's not going to be popular, but is this something potentially that will save lives? Yes, and that's how it should have been framed."

Most people in Manitoba's health-care system are calling it "bewildering why a decision wasn't made to lock down," he said.

"We're making a bet here on the health-care system that I would say is a silly bet. I think we're betting on a lame horse."

Dr. Aleeza Gerstein, an assistant professor in microbiology and statistics at the University of Manitoba, also wanted to hear a stronger message from health officials.

"We are now in the middle of the most dangerous series of human-to-human transmission in this province we have yet seen.

"Every single person you are interacting with is a potential carrier of the Omicron variant and you should behave accordingly, which means minimize your contacts to your household unless you absolutely cannot," she said.

Dr. Aleeza Gerstein, an assistant professor in microbiology and statistics at the University of Manitoba, doesn’t understand what is driving policy decisions in the province. (Zoom)

Gerstein knows the timing of enhanced restrictions would be terrible, but believes it's necessary.

"We simply can't afford to do anything except cancel absolutely everything that is not critical because we are already on course for our hospitals to reach unprecedented levels of people requiring acute care in the upcoming weeks," Gerstein said.

She doesn't understand what is driving policy decisions in the province. If she was in charge, a rapid testing drive-thru would have already been created so symptomatic people could know almost immediately if they need to isolate from a positive result.

Instead, Manitoba's COVID-19 testing specimen backlog has reached 10,000 samples and the wait time to receive results is at least four days.

Roussin said Manitobans need to prepare to not have large gatherings next week, but Carlson isn't sure if more restrictions are needed.

"I think the government's doing a good job. I support what they're doing," Carlson said.

"I do in some respects wish that they'd have just come out with a harder line today, but I also think it's up to people to do the right thing."

Changing Christmas Day plans

6 months ago
Duration 2:11
After COVID-19 numbers rise, some Manitobans change their holiday gathering plans.

With files from Bartley Kives and Sheila North

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