Manitoba

Manitoba shouldn't give up on containing COVID-19, Ontario epidemiologist says

Manitobans have been told they will likely be exposed to COVID-19 sometime in the coming weeks, with the government has shifted its focus away from trying to limit the spread of the disease. An University of Toronto epidemiologist disagrees with this approach.

'If they now just pretend we can't do anything, it won't help our case,' Peter Jüni says of elected officials

Peter Jüni, a professor of medicine and epidemiology at the University of Toronto and the scientific director of the Ontario Science Advisory Table on COVID-19, says Manitoba shouldn't be abandon trying to contain coronavirus. (CBC)

Manitoba's top health and political figures appear resigned to let the virus run its course without doing everything possible to slow the spread, and Peter Jüni, a professor of medicine and epidemiology at the University of Toronto, says that's not the best course of action.

"We would not have been able to contain this virus," Dr. Jazz Atwal, deputy chief provincial public health officer, said during Wednesday's press conference.

Premier Heather Stefanson said Manitoba is committed to providing additional support and staffing help as the latest wave of COVID-19 continues to strain hospitals, limit public socialization and impact various economic sectors.

Jüni, who is also the scientific director of the Ontario Science Advisory Table on COVID-19, agrees with Stefanson that Manitoba's health-care workforce needs more aid, but he does not believe the province is doing all it can to help its citizens.

"We need structural measures as humans," Jüni said on Information Radio Friday morning. "There needs to be measures and we need to make sure people work from home when they can, that they have less contacts."

The government has shifted its focus away from trying to limit the spread of the disease, and has instead told Manitobans that they will likely be exposed to COVID-19 sometime in the coming weeks.

Jüni believes Manitoba's decision to allow the virus to run its course is a step in the direction of provincial officials thinking the end of the pandemic is here, and entering into the endemic stage is nigh.

But he doesn't think Manitoba should be entertaining thoughts of giving up and assuming the endemic stage has arrived.

If that were the case, Jüni says the province's health-care system would not be in the troubled state of "helplessness and fatalism" it finds itself in.

"This will be a societal understanding of where we are going and that we are in a situation where the health-care system doesn't get overwhelmed anymore. That's definitely not where [Manitoba is] right now," he said.

"If somebody suggests [Manitoba is] in an endemic stage, that's a lie."

ICU numbers worrying

Dr. Peter Jüni is concerned about Manitoba's intensive care unit capacity, of which nearly 50 per cent of all patients have COVID-19. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

The province's increasing number of COVID-19 patients in intensive care units also worries him.

As of midnight Thursday, 102 patients were in Manitoba intensive care units, with 47 of them infected with COVID-19 as of Friday afternoon. 

The critical care program's normal, pre-COVID baseline capacity was 72 patients.

"We need to face the stark reality here that if you approach, relatively soon, 50 per cent of your ICU capacity just with COVID-19 patients, how sure will anybody who has a heart attack be treated in your ICUs," Jüni said.

"It won't work anymore that way."

He points to Ontario's stricter approach, which has closed restaurants for indoor dining, as well as gyms and movie theatres. Jüni says people's mobility outside of their homes — which is strongly connected with their number of contacts — has dropped significantly since late last month. Test positivity has also started to decrease.

Jüni said those two elements combined are cause for cautious optimism in Ontario that the COVID-19 situation in hospitals may start to peak in the next few weeks.

Not too late for Manitoba

But Jüni believes it's not too late for Manitoba to alter its course, while underscoring the need for all eligible adults to get their third dose of vaccine, continue to wear good masks and avoid crowded places. He says people should aim to decrease their number of contacts by half until hospital numbers stabilize.

"We are our own masters of our destiny and we just need to do that together. This includes elected decision makers. If they now just pretend we can't do anything, it won't help our case," Jüni said.

NDP Leader Wab Kinew encourages Manitobans not to give up. (Global News pool camera)

Manitoba NDP Leader Wab Kinew tried to pass on a dose of his own optimism Friday, while pointing out the need for empathy.

"I'm trying to look for ways to keep Manitobans hopeful during what is a very difficult time," Kinew said. "I know it's a tough time because people are getting sick. Our hospitals are more full than they've ever been."

"Empathy is about being able to see yourself in someone else's shoes. And empathy, it's about not giving up on each other," he added.

Kinew also encouraged Manitobans to keep the faith.

"And while the government may have quit, I know that the people of Manitoba will keep doing the right thing."

Epidemiologist and Scientific Director of Ontario's Science Advisory Table on COVID-19 in Toronto , Dr. Peter Juni responds to the Province's shift in tactics to fight the Omicron surge and if moving to an endemic stage is premature.

With files from Wendy Parker

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