Lockdown 3, the one everyone could foresee

For the third time since the start of this wretched pandemic, Manitoba is locking down.

The first time, in April 2020, the entire province shut down out of an abundance of caution. Only weeks in the global pandemic, no one in Manitoba had any clue what would happen when the novel coronavirus made its way into the Prairies.

As it turned out, it largely didn’t. The first wave of the pandemic was more like a ripple on a pond. 

The second lockdown, in November 2020, happened out of necessity. During the second wave of the pandemic, Manitoba suffered from Canada’s highest COVID-19 infection rate and Winnipeg in particular was a deadly place to be if you happened to be old and living in a personal care home.

There were indications last fall provincial public health authorities could have acted more quickly to tamp down the spread of the virus. Officials in Manitoba had time to see what went wrong in Quebec and Ontario personal care homes during the deadly first waves in those provinces.

Nonetheless, when Chief Provincial Public Health Officer Dr. Brent Roussin said he expected to achieve success in slowing the spread of the virus last fall by increasing restrictions in small increments, there is no reason to doubt his word.

Up until last fall, no one in this province had any experience managing the spread of a highly contagious disease capable of killing nearly three per cent of the people who catch it.

But after that nightmarish experience, which resulted in the deaths of hundreds of grandfathers and grandmothers — including some left to waste in their own beds without care — it is safe to say this province gained a great understanding of what it’s like to try and fail to slow the spread of COVID-19.

This experience makes Manitoba’s third lockdown more difficult to comprehend.

On one hand, this province did well to delay the third wave of COVID-19. It took more time for more contagious variants of concern to take off in Manitoba than it did anywhere else west of New Brunswick, likely because Manitoba reinstated interprovincial quarantine back in January.

On the other hand, it appears Manitoba squandered its advantage.

To anyone capable of reading a graph, it was clear COVID-19 cases were growing at an exponential rate in Manitoba once more by the end of the second week in April.

That is when the opportunity first presented itself for Manitoba’s now-experienced pandemic managers to enact a province-wide circuit breaker.

During a relative lull between the second and third waves of the pandemic, Roussin said in an interview the province would be wise to consider locking down more aggressively should case counts ever rise precipitously again.

“I think that’s probably something we’d have to consider earlier on,” he said in March, when cases were on the wane.

That did not happen in mid-April. Manitoba waited a week to begin toughening up restrictions and then did so in small increments again, somewhat similar to the way restrictions were brought in slowly in the fall.

This appeared to have little effect on slowing the spread of the more contagious variants of concern. The province’s decision to trot out a failed second-wave strategy during the third wave earned outright derision from some of the medical professionals working on the front lines.

“It’s forgivable to make a mistake and to learn from that mistake, but it’s not forgivable to refuse to face reality and learn from your mistakes,” Health Sciences Centre ICU physician Dan Roberts said earlier this week.

It is fair to say the province missed a window to avert another crisis. The number of COVID-19 patients in intensive care surged this week and is now expected to reach new pandemic heights within days.

On Friday, when Manitoba finally announced a lockdown, Roussin suggested he was never in favour of bringing out the heavy guns early, the way the Atlantic provinces have, with varying degrees of success.

“We need to have these restrictions be the least restrictive that we need for that time,” Roussin said over the Friday supper hour.

“As we saw numbers come up, we clearly articulated to Manitobans that we’re concerned. We clearly articulated that we’re in a third wave and dealing with a new variant.

“Then we escalated the orders. We escalated them twice. So now we’re again in a position where we really have to escalate them even more.”

Dr. Brent Roussin, Manitoba’s chief public health officer, said Friday the province has seen some of its highest case counts of the pandemic over the past week, and everyone in the province must work to slow the spread. 0:37

Premier Brian Pallister also chafed against the suggestion Manitoba could have responded more aggressively to the third wave.

“You could ask that question of seven other Canadian provinces that are experiencing the third wave and had their peak over the last three or four weeks as well,” the premier said during a Friday morning news briefing.

“We introduced tough restrictions on already tough restrictions two weeks ago and strengthened them last week again. So your question is essentially ‘Why didn’t we do that a week before that?’ Because we introduced those tough restrictions and we still don’t know how effective they’ll be.”

There is some confusion in Manitoba that the third wave is occurring at all. As of Friday, four in 10 Manitoba adults had received at least one shot of a COVID-19 vaccine.

A look at the age breakdown of active COVID-19 cases, however, illustrates that COVID-19 is mainly spreading among younger Manitobans right now.

As of Friday, people under 40 made up 69 per cent of Manitoba’s active cases. People under 30 made up 53 per cent alone. People over the age of 60 made up a paltry nine per cent of active cases.

Manitoba COVID-19 cases by age on May 7, 2021. (Bryce Hoye/CBC)

The age breakdown of COVID-19 hospitalizations does not skew as young, although 71 per cent of all COVID patients in hospitals are under 50. COVID-19 patients in hospital are overwhelmingly among the ranks of the unvaccinated, said Dr. Jazz Atwal, the deputy public health officer.

It is frightening to think where Manitoba would be without the vaccines. But it will take more than a month before enough Manitobans have enough vaccine-induced immunity to slow the spread of COVID-19.

So now we have harsh restrictions, at a time when the virus is already spreading widely among the populace and hospitals are struggling.

The premier described the idea Manitoba could have acted more quickly as the work of “Monday-morning quarterback people.”

That might be fair to say if the game was not a repeat.

Manitoba COVID-19 patients in hospital by age, May 7, 2021. (Bryce Hoye/CBC)