Lockdowns only delay COVID-19 cases, witness testifies at hearing on Manitoba’s restrictions

Lockdowns meant to reduce the spread of COVID-19 push the problem into the future, an outspoken critic of pandemic restrictions said Tuesday at a court hearing on a challenge to Manitoba’s right to impose such orders.

Jay Bhattacharya, a professor of medicine at Stanford University who has criticized lockdowns in the United States, acknowledged that the strict measures reduce the initial peak number of cases, but said the practice delays those infections to a later point.

Bhattacharya testified as a key witness Tuesday of the applicants — seven rural Manitoba churches, a pastor, a deacon and a man ticketed for attending an anti-lockdown protest — who argue Manitoba’s lockdown measures are unjustified violations of Charter-protected freedoms of conscience, religion, expression and peaceful assembly.

Under cross-examination by Heather Leonoff, a lawyer for the province of Manitoba, Bhattacharya was asked if it made sense to continue with some level of restrictions to delay infections until enough vaccines arrive, given that he said lockdowns have a purpose in the short-term.

Bhattacharya, who testified by video from California, said that is “one strategy,” but whether it was a good or bad is up for debate.

Lockdowns an ‘extraordinary measure’: witness

In response, the province is arguing limits on personal freedoms are a reasonable measure to reduce COVID-19 transmission rates.

As of Tuesday, Manitoba has had a total of 39,814 COVID-19 cases since the start of the pandemic, and 980 deaths related to the illness caused by the novel coronavirus, according to provincial data.

Bhattacharya has made a name for himself in the United States for speaking out against lockdowns and questioning chief COVID-19 medical adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci’s support of restrictions.

Bhattacharya is one of three authors of the controversial Great Barrington Declaration, which, if followed, would permit the novel coronavirus to spread naturally. It suggests limits on personal freedoms only be placed on individuals at a high risk of dying of COVID-19, while allowing everyone else to continue without restrictions and build up herd immunity.

“The Great Barrington approach isn’t an intervention in the same sense of a lockdown,” he said. “A lockdown involves an extraordinary set of measures to prevent human interactions from taking place on a grand scale.”

When Bhattacharya said he encourages a “focused protection” approach, Leonoff argued Manitoba’s interventions already target the most vulnerable, through measures such as limiting visitors to personal care homes and Indigenous communities.

Questioned on the lack of evidence for a model of pandemic restrictions that only protects the most vulnerable, Bhattacharya told court that supporting those most at risk of severe health outcomes is already a standard principle of public health.

Leonoff told court she had more than 50 pieces of literature that disagreed with Bhattacharya’s positions.

Throughout the morning, he was presented with published journal studies that said strict restrictions reduced transmission rates. He regularly questioned Leonoff’s interpretation of the data and repeated his position that lockdowns simply push high case counts to a later date.

Lockdowns cause “enormous mental stress,” Bhattacharya said, but Leonoff responded with a report from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, Canada’s largest mental health teaching hospital, that stated the country was in the throes of a mental health crisis long before the pandemic.

Bhattacharya also praised Sweden for not instituting a major lockdown, but recording a death rate lower than some European countries that did. 

Leonoff answered that any comparison of countries has to be done with caution because of a variety of biological and social factors.

Jay Bhattacharya, a professor of medicine at Stanford University who has criticized lockdowns in the United States, told the hearing Tuesday that he is in favour of a ‘focused protection’ approach to dealing with the coronavirus. (Rod Searcey/Stanford Health Policy)

Asked by Leonoff later if American states with much higher death rates than Manitoba should have adopted the province’s tighter restrictions, Bhattacharya himself questioned the comparison of jurisdictions. He said states such as California have a more dense population than Manitoba.

The case, heard by Manitoba Court of Queen’s Bench Chief Justice Glenn Joyal, began on Monday. It’s scheduled for nine days this month.

Shared Health Chief Nursing Officer Lanette Siragusa and infectious disease expert Jason Kindrachuk are scheduled to testify on Wednesday.

Dr. Brent Roussin, the province’s chief public health officer, is set to testify on Friday.