Doctors on the front lines of Manitoba's pandemic fight say updated public health restrictions announced Monday don't go far enough and officials seem to be making a bad bet COVID-19 won't overwhelm the health-care system in coming weeks.
"I feel like I'm on a ghost ship right now," said Dr. Jill Horton, a general internist at Winnipeg's Health Sciences Centre.
"Overall there's just a bigger picture here that feels like it is being missed. And I feel somewhat despondent right now, like I'm sure … many Manitobans do."
On Monday, the province reported eight new COVID-19-related deaths and 2,154 cases for a three-day period since Christmas Eve.
Officials reported a pandemic-record 785 cases on Christmas Day, 694 on Boxing Day and 675 on Monday. The soaring case counts come amid a backlog of more than 11,000 laboratory tests for the disease.
The updated restrictions, which came into effect at 12:01 a.m. Tuesday, mean gatherings must not exceed 50 per cent of the usual capacity of the space, or 250 people, whichever is less.
Just before Christmas, gathering limits were slightly more relaxed for people who are vaccinated — they were set at 50 per cent but with no capacity limit.
Chief Provincial Public Health Officer Dr. Brent Roussin said the new limits are meant to ensure patrons are properly distanced.
He asked the public to continue limiting their contacts and said at least three-quarters of all cases in the province are linked to the extremely contagious Omicron variant.
With Winnipeg's test positivity rate currently at 21.1 per cent, coupled with the testing backlog, Horton said thousands of COVID-19 cases are being missed.
If the current case counts translate into a wave of patients needing intensive care in hospital, that will overtax available resources, she said.
"We know that we are not going to be able to cope with that," Horton said.
"We need to lock down," said Dr. Eric Jacobsohn, an intensive care physician in Winnipeg and professor at the University of Manitoba's Max Rady College of Medicine.
"So the question is, why aren't we locking down?" Jacobsohn told CBC News.
Without a clear explanation from Manitoba Premier Heather Stefanson, most people in health care are bewildered and left to speculate about the motive to not do so, he said.
"The only thing that one can say now is that this is a calculated bet," said Jacobsohn. "Many of us think it's a bet on the wrong horse."
Doctors penned open letter calling for greater restrictions
Jacobsohn and Horton are two of 10 doctors who recently signed a sharply critical open letter to Stefanson and the Manitoba Progressive Conservative government. The physicians called for a range of improvements to critical care and other health services in the province.
Among the steps they advocated were restricting holiday gatherings to family members only, and asking the federal government for military intensive-care unit workers to come and assist Manitoba.
About a week later, federal Emergency Preparedness Minister Bill Blair announced the Canadian Red Cross was sending up to eight intensive care nurses to Manitoba for four weeks. The province had requested between 15-30 nurses for six weeks.
Horton said Monday the Red Cross' complement was enough to care for two to three critically ill COVID-19 patients.
Monday, the province reported 25 people were in ICU due to COVID-19. But that number conflicted with the 40 intensive care patients tallied by physicians including Grace Hospital's medical director Dr. Heather Smith. The province could not immediately explain the discrepancy.
Lisa Bryski, a retired physician who worked through the first year of the pandemic, told CBC she's of the view Manitoba's current public health restrictions are "soft-balling what COVID is now shooting at us with a cannon."
Health-care resources have been chipped away in prior waves, she said.
"We've done very poorly when we don't listen to those who know what our resources are," Bryski said.
"I don't think they're doing enough," Bryski said of current public health orders. "What it comes down to is we need to protect what we have right now for our health-care system and we need to protect each other."
Despite the strain on the system from COVID-19, Bryski urged people who feel they need medical care to still seek it out.