If the main job of public health officials is to provide people with sound advice on how to stay healthy — including lowering the risk of severe illness from a disease such as COVID-19 — Dr. Jazz Atwal failed last week.
During a news conference Friday on how the province planned to roll out the latest vaccine targeting the Omicron variant, Manitoba’s deputy chief provincial public health officer was asked what else people could do to protect themselves.
Wear a mask if you feel you’re high risk, he said. That was it, he had no other advice.
“It’s a virus, it’s out there, people are getting COVID,” Atwal said, shrugging his shoulders.
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Dr. Jazz Atwal, deputy chief provincial public health officer, said the important thing is for people to keep up with their vaccinations. Beyond that, there is no need to mitigate transmission.
The disease caused by the novel coronavirus, which has killed 2,115 people in Manitoba and resulted in more deaths thus far in 2022 than in either 2020 or 2021 at this date, is not much different than the common cold, he said.
“Before COVID, people got colds, right?” Atwal explained. “A lot of people got colds, colds went around, most people did well, some people still ended up in hospital back then, that was a severe outcome. We didn’t do anything different then.”
Atwal said the important thing is for people to keep up with their vaccinations. Beyond that, there is no need to mitigate transmission. In fact, there may be a benefit to getting COVID-19, he suggested.
“There’s such a focus on infection right now occurring, but it’s OK to get infected, you’re building your natural immunity, so that’s good,” said Atwal.
“There’s such a focus on infection right now occurring, but it’s OK to get infected, you’re building your natural immunity, so that’s good.”– Dr. Jazz Atwal
It was an astonishing statement which, not surprisingly, has drawn the ire from some in the medical community.
For many, it’s not OK to get infected.
Even with vaccine protection, there are still high-risk people who end up in hospital, or worse, from a COVID-19 infection. Many others, while not hospitalized, suffer from so-called long-COVID, where the impact of the disease lingers for weeks or longer.
Researchers are still learning about the mysteries of this virus. Playing down its seriousness and likening it to the common cold is out of step with those realities.
One would think public health would have a more robust protection plan in place than: “It’s OK to get infected.” Minimizing the effects of the disease because most people don’t become severely ill from it is reckless.
Atwal said it’s “OK” that COVID-19 has spread throughout the community because most people have developed an immunity to it, either through a previous infections and/or because they’ve been vaccinated. He said the focus should be on getting vaccinated, not on the number of people who get infected.
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“There’s such a focus on infection right now occurring, but it’s OK to get infected, you’re building your natural immunity, so that’s good,” said Dr. Jazz Atwal, deputy chief provincial public health officer.
That’s fine, but to make the blanket statement that it’s OK to get infected discourages businesses, public institutions and others from taking steps to mitigate transmission.
There are many measures schools, long-term care facilities and public places can take to reduce spread, including improving air quality. There are also steps people can take to protect the most vulnerable. But when a senior public health official says it’s OK to get infected, why would anyone bother taking any action?
Atwal also played down the impact COVID-19 is having on hospitals. He said he’s been in medicine since 2002, and there is nothing new about overcrowded emergency rooms and medical wards. Many experienced ER docs and hospital staff would beg to differ.
“We’ve had stresses every year in the hospital, we’ve had stresses specifically in certain seasons related to influenza in the hospital,” said Atwal. “It’s going to be busy in the hospital, it’s busy right now in the hospital. It’s going to get probably a little bit busier coming this fall, more people will get sick, there’s going to be other viruses circulating as well.”
So no big deal. It’s OK to get infected. It’s OK that COVID-19 is circulating broadly and when push comes to shove, hospitals can handle the influx. Other than a reminder to get vaccinated, that was Atwal’s message.
This is the same guy who insisted during the third wave of the pandemic the province didn’t need to ramp up public health measures because Manitoba would avoid the explosion of cases that struck other regions. Within weeks, Manitoba was airlifting dozens of critically-ill COVID-19 patients out-of-province because hospitals were overwhelmed.
We were definitely not OK.
Tom has been covering Manitoba politics since the early 1990s and joined the Winnipeg Free Press news team in 2019.
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