Does Manitoba have the tightest COVID-19 restrictions? Reality checking Premier Pallister’s press conference

Premier Brian Pallister was on the defensive at a news conference Tuesday, as he tried to explain why Manitoba’s ICU numbers are surging, why the province has the highest infection rate in North America and what his government is doing to stop the spread.

But how much of it reflects the reality of what is happening in Manitoba?

CBC producer Kristin Annable looked at some of the statements Pallister made at the press conference with Chief Provincial Health Officer Dr. Brent Roussin to try to separate the facts from the spin. 

1) The majority of COVID-19-positive patients in Manitoba hospitals are unvaccinated.

What Pallister said:

“There are Manitobans who did not bother to take an hour or two and go and get a life-saving vaccine. In fact, over 70 per cent of our hospitalizations currently are folks who haven’t been vaccinated.” 

What’s the reality?

The latest figures show that as of last Friday, 70 per cent of the 291 Manitobans in hospital with COVID-19 at that point had not received a vaccine dose.

However, to say that they “didn’t bother” to get jabbed is disingenuous.

Manitoba only started opening vaccinations to the general population under 40 earlier this month.

Throughout the month, as intensive care units became more and more crowded and Manitoba started sending patients out of province for care, roughly 20 per cent of those in ICU beds were occupied by people under 40 on any given day.

On Wednesday, health officials said about 16 per cent of patients in ICU were under 40.

About 35 per cent of all COVID-19 hospitalizations are people under 40, according to data from early May.

Vaccine eligibility for that age group opened between May 8 and May 14 — leaving only a small window for them to have scheduled a first dose. Even after that, it takes two to three weeks for vaccines to take full effect.

2) Manitoba has enacted tighter restrictions than other provinces.

What Pallister said:

“With every step of the way, we enacted stricter restrictions sooner than other provinces did, relative to the stages they were at.”

What’s the reality?

If you use the criteria of test positivity rate and rate of infection, Ontario is at least one example of a province that announced tougher restrictions than Manitoba during the height of its third wave of COVID-19 cases.

The week of April 11, Ontario hit 205 cases per 100,000. Its test positivity rate was 8.2 per cent on April 16. 

On that day, the province announced it was extending a stay-at-home order that surpassed Manitoba’s current restrictions, and stepping up enforcement powers for police.

Ontario had already limited non-essential businesses to pickup and delivery.

But dire modelling predictions and high case counts prompted the province to go further and to close all recreational amenities, such as golf courses.

Meanwhile, Manitoba had a test positivity rate of 13.3 per cent provincially and 15 per cent in Winnipeg as of Wednesday. It has the worst infection rate in North America, at 227 cases per 100,000 over the last seven days. 

While there are limits on gatherings, there is no stay-at-home order, non-essential retail businesses remain open and some recreational activities such as golf remain allowed. 

3) Ontario allows more people in businesses than Manitoba.

What Pallister said:

 “Ontario has 25 per cent capacity allowed in the retail stores. We have 10 [per cent].”

What’s the reality?

Essential stores are allowed up to 25 per cent of maximum capacity in Ontario. However, Pallister’s comment neglected to mention stores deemed non-essential in Ontario have been closed for in-store shopping since April 8.

Shopping malls were also closed except to allow access to an essential business or service, or to pick up an order. 

In Manitoba, all retail stores — and shopping malls — remain open and allowed to operate at 10 per cent capacity. With a few exceptions, only one person per household can enter a business to purchase items.

4) Some provinces have stay-at-home orders, but still allow outdoor gatherings.

What Dr. Brent Roussin said:

“The stay-at-home order is a way of framing things. Of course, if we look at other jurisdictions, [they] might have a stay-at-home order, but you can still gather up to five people outside your household.”

What’s the reality?

The remark was made a few times at Tuesday’s press conference. Roussin and Pallister appear to be referencing Ontario.

Under that province’s April 8 order, gatherings with up to five people outside your household were allowed, but the province changed course, and by April 16 was limiting those gatherings to household members only.

5) People are not getting tested and winding up in hospital.

What Pallister said:

“Too many of those people didn’t even bother to get tested for COVID, which means they placed other people in jeopardy as well.”

What’s the reality?

Pallister is correct — numbers provided by Shared Health show that about 43 per cent of those in hospital got their first COVID-19 after they were admitted. 

However, his comments drew swift condemnation from medical professionals, who said sometimes it is not about “choice” for a patient.

Dr. Jillian Horton, a general internist in Winnipeg, said ICU doctors have told her that symptoms sometimes hit so fast, people don’t have time for a test, and their first call is to 911.

Some present at hospital with symptoms like heart pains, and only learn after they are admitted the symptoms were caused by COVID-19, she said.