Some feel province leaving at-risk Manitobans to fend for themselves against Omicron

Some vulnerable Manitobans are frustrated after the premier suggested this week the government can’t protect people amid growing hospitalizations due to COVID-19, though others feel the reality of the highly contagious Omicron variant means some degree of risk is unavoidable.

“The government is basically telling us … fend for yourselves,” said Allen Mankewich, who has spina bifida and uses a wheelchair.

This week, Dr. Jazz Atwal, deputy chief public health officer, and Premier Heather Stefanson said most Manitobans would be exposed to the virus in the following weeks and would have to learn to live with this virus.

On Wednesday, Atwal and Stefanson spoke about needing to strike a balance between more public health restrictions and not placing more strain on businesses.

“This virus is running throughout our community and it’s up to Manitobans to look after themselves,” said Stefanson.

Dr. Eric Kennedy, who leads a national COVID-19 monitoring project, said health equity issues should be high on the list of things governments consider when making changes to COVID-19 policies.

“An attempt to try to remove restrictions isn’t felt equally by everyone,” said Kennedy, an assistant professor in disaster and emergency management at York University.

“It could in fact create inequalities in society where some people feel they can engage more readily and others will feel like they have to stay restricted to protect themselves.”

Mankewich echoed those concerns.

He said it feels like the province is abandoning people who live with disabilities and others who are at risk. More than ever, he feels he has to protect himself.

“I don’t want to end up in the hospital and end up in a situation where, you know, the system is overrun and they’re deciding between me and someone else for critical care,” he said.

Kenneth Wright and his mother, Cathy Stevenson, both of whom are immunocompromised, feel the restrictions thus far have kept them safe but have also been challenging. 

Kenneth Wright, left, and his mother Cathy Stevenson. Both are immunocompromised and feel, given the highly contagious nature of Omicron, Manitobans will have to learn to live with the virus in a way they haven’t before. (Zoom)

“It’s really concerning that people are getting sick, but I would say that I agree that at this point we do have to learn to live with it, unfortunately,” said Wright.

Wright, 31, has psoriatic arthritis and auto-immune inflammatory disease, and he takes medication that compromises his immune system.

He has been wanting to get into the swimming pool to get some exercise, but that has been difficult to do with restrictions.

“It sounds terrible and very unpleasant, but … these restrictions can only really go on for so long for people. They get sick of it, and frankly I’m sick of it,” said Wright.

He and his mother both feel encouraged by some early reports from other jurisdictions suggesting that Omicron may not cause severe illness at the same rate as past variants.

That said, Omicron has also led to record hospitalizations and driven up intensive care unit admissions in Manitoba in a matter of weeks.

There were 499 COVID-19 patients in hospital as of Thursday, 47 of which were people in ICUs. Deaths are increasing too, though they’re still not as high as in past waves before vaccines were widely available.

Stevenson has Stage 4 pancreatic cancer and is cautious about where she goes and who she sees.

“You can’t change the decisions people make and their acts, you can only learn to live with them,” said Wright, a retired nurse of 40 years. “You just have to be extra cautious around people who look like they don’t really care.”

She believes some restrictions are necessary, but with only months left to live she would also like to be free to visit family when she can in the time she has left.

“There is going to be different variants coming out in the future and maybe as we go they’ll become less and less severe,” she said. “But maybe they won’t, maybe they’ll become more severe, so we do have to learn to live with it in one way.”