Manitoba has head in sand as COVID-19 cases climb elsewhere, says infectious disease expert

An infectious disease expert says Manitobans are being kept in the dark when it comes to the ongoing risk of COVID-19.

“I know we are all tired of the virus and we all want to be done with it, [but] it is not tired of us and it’s not done with us. We are still in the middle of a pandemic,” said Julie Lajoie, but Manitoba is acting like it is over.

“We cannot ignore it.”

The province has stopped giving out daily data on the virus, switching instead to once-a-week epidemiology reports. Its online COVID-19 dashboard, which had provided information cases, test positivity, deaths, hospital and intensive care rates, is no longer being updated.

Data is reported with a one-week delay for increased data accuracy, completeness and reliability, a provincial spokesperson said in an email to CBC News. Online COVID-19 dashboards are no longer be available, but vaccine dashboards will continue to be updated until Thursday.

“This process has been used for some time as part of public health reporting for a variety of illnesses. Additional reporting for any illness beyond this process, as seen through the COVID-19 pandemic, may be required and will be instituted depending on the severity of the situation,” the spokesperson added.

Public health officials have said real-time data is less now less critical than it was, and the focus should shift to reporting on key trends.

“Information about COVID will continue to be transparent and publicly available, but this is a part of a response that has to shift as well,” Dr. Jazz Atwal, Manitoba’s deputy provincial public health officer, said earlier this month.

Officials say Manitobans should assess their own safety risk and can do so by using its other online resources.

However, “to make your own risk assessment you need to know what’s happening,” said Lajoie, who holds a PhD in immunology and virology and is a research associate in medical microbiology at the University of Manitoba.

Julie Lajoie says Manitobans are being left to flail as the province closes off the pipeline of COVID-19 information. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

“Is there a lot of virus in the community? Is it really low? What is the hospital setting? Right now we have no means of knowing any of those things.”

That lack of data and transparency gives people a false sense of security, causes them to lose trust in the government and public health, and is plainly dangerous, she said.

“The definition of ‘live with the virus right now is’ is ‘let’s all get infected and re-infected,'” which leaves the door open for new variants to emerge, said Lajoie.

‘Extremely irresponsible’: Winnipegger

Katherine Bitney, a senior who has immunocompromised family members, said the readily available provincial data provided “a sense of where the flow was and how careful you needed to be.” 

“Now you don’t have any of that. I feel really quite at sea,” said Bitney, a poet who lives in Winnipeg.

At times when the virus was most virulent, the data gave a better sense of how to manage your life and social behaviour, she said.

“Now there’s nada. I think that leaves us all in a really bad position, especially people like myself, who is a senior,” Bitney, 75, said.

“The public has a right to know what kind of risks are being taken here by the government with everyone’s lives and health. It’s extremely irresponsible of them not to be keeping people up to date.”

Katherine Bitney, a poet who lives in Winnipeg, says she intends to keep wearing her mask until she feels ‘perfectly safe’ going without one in public. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

Meanwhile, data is only beginning to show the impact the virus can have on the brain and heart, and its effect on those with diabetes, among other health concerns, Lajoie said.

There are also the financial implications of the health-care system treating people with long-term effects from COVID, she said, along with the economic hit if workers are unable to concentrate or do their job properly.

“Even the … [World Health Organization] is saying that’s going to be the pandemic after the pandemic, if we are not really careful of preventing infection.”

After more than a month of decline, COVID-19 cases have started to increase in several places around the world, with lockdowns in Asia and China’s Jilin province battling to contain an outbreak.

Another wave is “knocking at the door” in Canada, too, Lajoie said.

“Quebec announced officially that the sixth wave started over the weekend,” and wastewater data in Ontario “is going up all the time in the last few weeks,” she said.

A combination of factors is causing the increases, including the highly transmissible Omicron coronavirus variant and its BA.2 subvariant, as well as the lifting of public health and social measures, according to the World Health Organization.

Lajoie doesn’t want Manitoba to reinstate widespread restrictions but does think a mask mandate would help.

“I know people will say, ‘well, it’s still recommended if you want to wear it, you can wear it.’ The problem is if the person who’s infectious doesn’t wear a mask,” she said. 

The province should also go back to mandatory isolation for people infected with COVID-19, she said. That was dropped on March 15, when indoor mask mandates were eliminated.

Lajoie believes a 10-day isolation is best but concedes that’s difficult for some people. A five-day period, followed by two negative rapid tests, would be OK.

Implementing a paid sick leave program in Manitoba would help ensure people can do that, she said.

She also said Manitoba should start planning now for the fall, “because we know that virus is still going to be there.”

Lajoie would also like to see more regular updates on wastewater analysis, which can help detect COVID-19 outbreaks and determine whether infections are rising or dropping.

People infected with the coronavirus shed viral RNA in their feces, often before they even develop symptoms. That indicator can help the public prepare better if infection rates are increasing. 

Manitoba Public Health has said it can’t release that data because it is the jurisdiction of the federal government, which publishes its analysis once a month.

“It should be it should be at least on a weekly basis so people can know what’s happening,” said Lajoie.

The federal government provides that information through the National Microbiology Lab twice a week for Manitoba’s own interpretation. The decision to refuse to release that interpretation is up to the province.

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