Doctors call for drastic COVID-19 measures in Winnipeg area

Manitoba's recent efforts to to regain control of surging COVID-19 numbers are a good start, but not enough, say doctors in yet another letter to the province.

'Would be a great disservice to imply that we are adequately prepared and that all will be fine,' letter says

Empty Winnipeg streets at the start of the pandemic. A group of doctors says more drastic measures are required to reduce personal contacts in Manitoba, including a temporary shutdown of non-essential retail and service businesses. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

Manitoba's recent efforts to to regain control of surging COVID-19 numbers are a good start, but not enough, say doctors in yet another letter to the province.

"We know that everyone wants to soldier through this but it would be a great disservice to imply that we are adequately prepared and that all will be fine," states the letter, dated Nov. 3 and signed by a group of 11 doctors.

The group had sent a previous letter on Oct. 30, calling for a provincewide shutdown, similar to what was done in the spring.

This week, the province enacted a number of new restrictions, with Winnipeg moving to the red, or "critical" level on the pandemic response system, and the rest of the province to the orange, or "restricted" level.

The province also announced stepped-up enforcement and raised the possibility of a curfew.

"While we applaud these measures, we remain deeply concerned," the latest letter states.

In addition to the government's recent measures, the doctors are urging the province to enact the following recommendations provincewide for three weeks:

  • Shut down all non-essential retail and service businesses and impose more stringent occupancy limits for essential retail and service establishments.
  • Suspend secondary and post-secondary in-class instruction in favour of virtual learning. Elementary schools and kindergartens can remain open.
  • Implement a 14-day self-isolation requirement for all out-of-province travellers and visitors.
  • Limit gatherings of any kind to household members only.
  • Outsource COVID-19 testing to improve capacity and reduce the current burden on hospital

"Although we are aware that there will be negative financial, social and mental health consequences arising from these measures, we are convinced that ignoring them will very likely result in a much more severe and protracted lockdown and a greater number of preventable deaths," the letter states.

The number of COVID-19 patients in hospital has spiked over the last few weeks, from 28 on Oct. 19, to 140 as of Nov. 4. (Bryce Hoye/CBC)

The province's rate of new infections and the test-positivity rate have risen rapidly in the last two weeks, the doctors note. The number of hospitalizations has more than tripled in the last two weeks, and the doctors point out the current number represents the transmission levels as they were two weeks ago.

"That means that we can expect these numbers to triple again in the next 14 days and double or triple again by the end of the month."

Inadequate testing and contact tracing capacity, coinciding with a very high rate of community transmission — a new COVID patient now infects on average 2.5 more people, according to the doctors — indicates that the situation is now out of control, the letter says.

"We are convinced that more drastic measures are required to reduce personal contacts. These measures must remain until the rate of community spread falls dramatically so that our testing and contact tracing capacity is sufficient to control outbreaks."

Another source of concern cited in the letter is hospital capacity. Additional ICU capacity may be created but its potential will be hampered by a limited supply of critical care nurses and isolation rooms, the letter says.

"The attempts to stretch resources to accommodate rapidly increasing cases will place care workers at much higher risk of infection and compound our manpower challenges."

Not trying to undermine officials

Health Minister Cameron Friesen has come under fire for accusing doctors of "causing chaos" by raising concerns with the province's response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The original Oct. 30 letter calling for a lockdown was followed by a letter from another 200-plus doctors, urging the province for stronger action, including emergency funding to deal with the spike in cases.

"I wonder at the motivation to produce that letter, to generate it at a time when they knew it would have maximum effect in causing chaos in the system," Friesen said at a committee hearing on Tuesday.

That prompted NDP health critic Uzoma Asagwara to demand Friesen apologize or resign.

In the latest letter, the doctors say they have reached out to the leadership of both Shared Health and Public Health to discuss the current situation and "offer advice, support and reassurance that our intention was not to undermine those entrusted to carry us through this crisis."

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Darren Bernhardt spent the first dozen years of his journalism career in newspapers, at the Regina Leader-Post then the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. He has been with CBC Manitoba since 2009 and specializes in offbeat and local history stories. He is the author of award-nominated and bestselling The Lesser Known: A History of Oddities from the Heart of the Continent.