Manitoba hospitals were 'extremely at capacity,' epidemiologist testifies at pandemic restrictions hearing
COVID-19 public health orders violate Charter rights, group of churches, individuals argue in court challenge
For a second consecutive day, a lawyer representing a group fighting Manitoba's pandemic restrictions tried to dispute the narrative that the province's hospitals have been overwhelmed.
Thursday was the fourth day of a hearing on a challenge by seven churches and three individuals, who argue Manitoba's public health orders violate the Charter freedoms of conscience, religion, expression and peaceful assembly.
The province's lawyers say the restrictions are reasonable in a pandemic, which has so far led to 40,442 COVID-19 cases in Manitoba and 986 deaths.
The hearing at Manitoba's Court of Queen's Bench could have broad implications nationally, as the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms — which launched the challenge on behalf of the group of churches and individuals — will embark on similar hearings in B.C. and Alberta.
In court, Allison Pejovic, a lawyer for the centre, pointed to a government document from late November 2020 — as Manitoba was entering the peak of the pandemic's second wave — in which the province said it doubled the number of intensive care beds to 173 to "address this demand."
The same document showed the province increased the total number of clinical beds to 3,084 — roughly 600 more than at the start of the pandemic.
But two weeks earlier, provincial modelling warned the spike in COVID-19 cases would exceed the capacity of both ICU beds and available clinical beds. Those bed counts, however, were lower than the expanded capacity the province boasted about later that month, Pejovic said while cross-examining Carla Loeppky, the province's director of epidemiology.
'Last line of defence'
"Would you agree with me then that once the higher number of beds was taken into account, that rise of infections would not have overwhelmed the hospital bed system?" Pejovic asked.
Loeppky, the lead public health epidemiologist in Manitoba, said the number of hospital beds was increased as a direct result of the modelling her office presented.
"Breaching your hospital system is your last line of defence," Loeppky said.
She argued, as Manitoba Chief Nursing Officer Lanette Siragusa did in court on Wednesday, that the province's health-care system was already stretched thin.
"The hospital system was extremely at capacity, and all of the data that came through to us showed that the hospital system was not faring well and that we were working at the top limits," Loeppky said.
Her November model suggested Manitoba's COVID-19 patients would require all available ICU beds by Nov. 23. The province ultimately boosted ICU capacity from 124 beds to 173.
Loeppky told court in leading the epidemiology team, her office gathers COVID-19 information and prepares the modelling data the province uses as it decides on appropriate limits on individual and economic activity.
Loeppky said she recommends tougher restrictions while contract tracing is strained.
Last fall, she said the ability of public health workers to follow up with close contacts of people infected with COVID-19 was "stretched, but not overwhelmed." Reports suggested it took several days to contact those people in some cases.
Pejovic pointed out the shortcomings of contact tracing, such as relying on the willingness of infected people to honestly disclose their interactions.
Loeppky acknowledged the challenges, but said her team also relies on patterns, clusters and trends to understand the transmission of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.
Pejovic also suggested, without providing evidence of any examples, that people could be forced to "needlessly" isolate because of contact with a resolved COVID-19 infection. She pressed Loeppky repeatedly to acknowledge that some COVID-19 tests presented to her office could be outdated.
The chance of that is "incredibly low," as health officials investigate each positive test to confirm it isn't outdated, Loeppky said.
Blanchard objects to decisions made based only on what we see in Manitoba rather than what we know the virus is capable of doing based on what we've seen globally. "Responding to something is different than trying to prevent something that hasn’t happened yet."—@karenpaulscbc
Later in the day, Dr. James Blanchard, Canada Research Chair in Epidemiology and Global Public Health, questioned the effectiveness of herd immunity, wherein public health restrictions are only placed on individuals at high risk of dying of COVID-19, in his testimony.
The University of Manitoba professor said trying to separate known vulnerable cohorts from everyone else is impractical. He said he wasn't aware of any successful examples.
Chief Justice Glenn Joyal is presiding over the hearing, which began Monday and is expected to run for nine days.
Dr. Brent Roussin, Manitoba's chief public health officer, is scheduled to testify Friday.
With files from Karen Pauls