Pride before the fall: Manitoba’s pandemic year

During the year of the pandemic, Manitoba re-learned a profound and ancient lesson: Pride really does precede a fall.

The pandemic we thought we flattened in the spring and eliminated over the summer came back to hobble us in autumn, sickening tens of thousands and killing hundreds of our most vulnerable citizens.

Given the speed at which memory fades, here’s a brief chronicle of how we got here.

The initial wave

When what was still known as the novel coronavirus spilled out of China’s Hubei province, officials in Manitoba were not overly concerned.

On Jan. 28, Health Minister Cameron Friesen said he was confident Manitoba would be prepared if the virus ever made it here.

The province’s initial experience with COVID-19 bore out his prediction.

Within days of the first three COVID cases emerging in Manitoba, the province suspended all visits to long-term care homes and hospitals, declared a state of emergency and pulled students out of school.

Winnipeg Richardson International Airport stood all but empty within weeks of the pandemic’s declaration. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

Most Manitobans were paying rapt attention when the first Manitoban died of the virus on March 27.

“This is our time to act now. Stay home if you can,” implored Dr. Brent Roussin, Manitoba’s chief provincial public health officer, who very quickly became a household name.

Manitobans listened. By the time all non-essential businesses were shuttered on April 1, the streets of Winnipeg were virtually empty. 

With the help of geography and a little luck, these initial measures worked. An initial flurry of travel-related cases dwindled to single digits by the middle of April.

By April 29, the province announced plans to reopen the economy.

“There is no room whatsoever for complacency against COVID-19. It is an adversary that is nefarious, sneaky and dangerous,” Premier Brian Pallister said at the time. “There must be no COVID comeback in our province.”

The summer reprieve

By the middle of July, Manitoba appeared to have achieved the impossible: COVID-19 was all but non-existent.

The province went 13 days in July without a new case. The pandemic became an afterthought. 

“The virus is not done with us,” Roussin said on a day when the active caseload dwindled to a single patient. “We need to adhere to the principles that got us here.”

in August, Manitoba launched a campaign to advertise the loosening of pandemic restrictions. (John Einarson/CBC)

We did not. In August, a cluster of COVID-19 cases emerged in western Manitoba. Brandon briefly became Canada’s COVID-19 hotspot.

Meanwhile, the Progressive Conservative government unveiled a billboard campaign called Restart Manitoba. The timing could not have been more unfortunate.

The fall surge

The western Manitoba outbreak turned out to be short-lived, thanks to the province’s first mandatory mask mandate and the relative ease of tracing the spread of the virus through easily identifiable clusters.

At the same time, problems were emerging in Winnipeg. 

The first warning sign was a surge in demand for COVID-19 tests in the Manitoba capital. In the middle of September, Winnipeggers waited as long as seven hours for a swab.

Lines stretched far down Main Street outside a COVID-19 testing site in September. (Lyzaville Sale/CBC)

The surge in positive cases soon overwhelmed the province’s small team of dedicated contact tracers. By the first week of October, newly infected patients reported waiting as long as eight days to get a call from a case investigator.

At this point, the genie was out of the bottle. Community transmission raced out of control. The virus spread into personal care homes, correctional facilities, workplaces and schools. Hospital admissions due to COVID-19 started climbing.

Throughout the month of October, Manitoba imposed a series of what it described as “targeted restrictions” on the Winnipeg region in an effort to staunch the bleeding.

It didn’t work. When a daily case count of 480 was announced Oct. 30, Pallister, Friesen and Roussin had no choice but to consider another lockdown. 

Everyone sees red

If history is kind, November and December will be recalled as the worst months of the pandemic in Manitoba.

On Halloween, Manitoba had 5,723 cases of COVID-19 and suffered 69 deaths. As of this morning, we have 25,513 cases and 661 deaths.

(Caitlyn Gowriluk/CBC)

In other words, 74 per cent of Manitoba’s COVID-19 cases and 90 per cent of its deaths have emerged over the past few months.

So have most of the most ignominious moments of the pandemic.

On Nov. 3, Friesen lambasted doctors for demanding more pandemic restrictions the province wound up imposing anyway.

“I wonder at the motivation to produce that letter, to generate it at a time when they knew it would have maximum effect in causing chaos in the system,” the health minister said during a legislative committee meeting.

“Manitobans need most to understand that the people in charge have got this.”

Health Minister Cameron Friesen questioned the motivation of 200 doctors who signed a letter raising concerns about the province’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. (YouTube/The Legislative Assembly of Manitoba)

What the people in charge did not have was any effective means of preventing COVID outbreaks.

First, there was a rash of deaths at Parkview Place in downtown Winnipeg. Then a night of horror at Maples Personal Care Home, when paramedics were called to provide emergency assistance.

There have been no fewer than 58 personal-care home and assisted-living facility outbreaks and 11 or more COVID deaths each at Parkview, Maples, Park Manor, St. Norbert, Rest Haven, Oakview Place and Fairview personal care homes.

Add in 17 hospital outbreaks, nine in jails and the spread of COVID-19 to remote First Nations, and the nightmare scenario from the beginning of the pandemic came to pass: Every line of defence created to keep the virus out of vulnerable settings had been breached.

The reckoning

The first profound admission Manitoba’s pandemic response went awry came as public health officials sought to reassure the public red restrictions were working.

On Dec. 4, Roussin unveiled COVID-19 case growth projections that illustrated how new cases levelled off in the weeks following the imposition of tough new measures.

(Caitlyn Gowriluk/CBC)

Those same charts, however, showed case counts exceeded worst-case scenarios in early October. At the time, the province was still tinkering with targeted orange restrictions, such as reducing the hours when bars could serve alcohol.

“This is the benefit of hindsight on these type of things,” Roussin said when asked why Manitoba didn’t impose tougher measures when they saw case counts spiralling out of control.

“We absolutely did see numbers increasing and we tried the targeted approach. We tried those various orange restrictions to try to bring down those numbers. But you could see that we didn’t get the the buy-in from it and then were eventually required to go to red.”

As the year drew to a close, Pallister conceded Manitoba’s pandemic response fell short — even as he continued to characterize the fall COVID surge as something that materialized out of nowhere.

“We weren’t ready for the spike that happened, almost spontaneously, in that early couple of weeks of November,” the premier told the Canadian Press in a year-end interview.

Finally, on Dec. 30, the premier appeared ready to turn the page.

“Let us resolve to make 2021 better by learning the lessons of the past and then looking forward,” Pallister said Wednesday.

Manitoba learned very hard lessons in 2020. Chief among them is the folly of pride.