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Avoiding ‘unintended consequences’: Manitoba Liquor Marts stay open amid COVID-19

Face masks will be mandatory in all Manitoba liquor marts and Crown-owned casinos in Winnipeg next week.
Face masks will be mandatory in all Manitoba liquor marts and Crown-owned casinos in Winnipeg next week. THE CANADIAN PRESS IMAGES/Francis Vachon

Many have wondered why Manitoba Liquor Marts remain open during COVID-19, and the answer may have more to do with keeping emergency rooms clear than keeping home bars stocked during the pandemic.

At a press conference Wednesday, Manitoba’s chief public health officer was asked if he would make sure liquor stores stay open to ensure those with addictions don’t go into withdrawal and wind up in hospital during the pandemic.

Dr. Brent Roussin said he’s mindful of “the unintended consequences” that may come from a decision to turn off the tap on Manitoba’s supply of alcohol.

Dr. Brent Roussin, Manitoba chief public health officer.
Dr. Brent Roussin, Manitoba chief public health officer. THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods

“When we talk about health, we know that there’s much more to health than this virus,” he told reporters.

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READ MORE: Coronavirus: Manitoba now has 35 cases after 14-person jump

“We’re looking out for the health of all Manitobans, including those who have medical conditions related to substance use.”

Withdrawl, seizures, psychiatric complications

Experts have told Global News keeping liquor stores open may help make sure people living with alcohol abuse issues don’t add to the stress already facing the healthcare system.

“Alcohol dependency can be psychologically and physiologically. If the supply is cut off for that population of people, it can be potentially catastrophic,” said Elaine Hyshka, a researcher and assistant professor with the School of Public Health at the University of Alberta.

“Not everyone with alcohol use disorder who abstains from drinking will experience medical complications, but for the smaller proportion that does, it can be life-threatening.

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“They can go into withdrawal, which can cause seizures and other different psychiatric complications.”

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According to numbers from the Canadian Centre for Substance Use and Addiction (CCSUA) 3.2 per cent of the Canadian population has reported alcohol abuse or dependence.

In 2017, the rate of hospitalizations caused entirely by alcohol in Canada was comparable to the rate of hospitalizations for heart attacks, according to data compiled by CCSUA.

‘A lot of effects of this pandemic’

While Roussin didn’t specifically say that’s the reason liquor stores in Manitoba are staying open, he did say addiction — including drug addiction — is playing a role in his decision making.

For instance, he said the province is making sure it has adequate supplies of naloxone over concerns social distancing strategies may affect drug supply.

“We know that there is a there’s a lot of effects of this pandemic and a slowdown,” he said.

“Certainly in any consideration about liquor availability, all of those thoughts will be going into that before we make any changes.”

Manitoba Liquor Mart wine
Manitoba Liquor Marts have remained open during the COVID-19 outbreak. File / Global News

As of Wednesday Manitoba Liquor Stores remained open, with extra precautions taken to help reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19, including asking customers with flu-like symptoms to stay away, an increase in cleaning and the suspension of in-store sampling.

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Stores are also offering a delivery service with next-day home delivery available online.

And for now Roussin said he has no plans to order liquor stores to close.

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“They will remain open,” he said Wednesday.

“But we are reviewing those types of things constantly and all of the unintended consequences of any choice we make, we look at very closely before we implement it.”

Canada’s Low-Risk Alcohol Drinking Guidelines recommend no more than 10 drinks a week for women (no more than two a day), and no more than 15 drinks a week for men (no more than three a day).

— With files from Rachael D’Amore and The Canadian Press

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Questions about COVID-19? Here are some things you need to know:

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Health officials caution against all international travel. Returning travellers are asked to self-isolate for 14 days in case they develop symptoms and to prevent spreading the virus to others.

Symptoms can include fever, cough and difficulty breathing — very similar to a cold or flu. Some people can develop a more severe illness. People most at risk of this include older adults and people with severe chronic medical conditions like heart, lung or kidney disease. If you develop symptoms, contact public health authorities.

To prevent the virus from spreading, experts recommend frequent handwashing and coughing into your sleeve. They also recommend minimizing contact with others, staying home as much as possible and maintaining a distance of two metres from other people if you go out.

For full COVID-19 coverage from Global News, click here.