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Manitoba’s top doc testifies in court challenge to his authority Friday

Dr. Brent Roussin, Manitoba chief public health officer, leaves after speaking at the province's latest COVID-19 update at the Manitoba legislature in Winnipeg Friday, October 30, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods

Manitoba’s chief provincial health officer is testifying Friday in a court challenge that seeks to limit his powers.

Dr. Brent Roussin took the stand in a Manitoba courtroom to answer questions about public health restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Click to play video: 'Manitoba minister says only God has authority to make people wear masks'
Manitoba minister says only God has authority to make people wear masks

Seven rural Manitoba churches are challenging his right to enforce restrictions around public gatherings and businesses during a public health crisis.

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The group argues Roussin’s public health orders and decisions are made without elected oversight.

The churches’ lawyer, Jared Brown, spent part of the morning questioning Roussin about the accuracy of the PCR test, commonly used to determine whether a person has an active case of COVID-19.

The doctor told court he thought “too much was being made of the limitations of a very, very good test.”

Read more: Manitoba ramps up 3rd wave preparations as ICUs see rise in COVID-19 patients

“Is it possible some people aren’t infectious when they have a PCR test? Yes,” said Roussin, who added that the results of the test were still reflective of what the health-care system was seeing.

“Our hospitals were full of COVID-19 patients, our ICUs (intensive care units) were full of COVID-19 patients…. We had to act on the trends we were seeing and we were in a crisis.”

Brown also questioned the objectives of public health orders and asked where public health was receiving guidance on the restrictions it has implemented.

Roussin said they examine jurisdictions all across the world and received advice from the Public Health Agency of Canada.

Health officials’ goal, Roussin explained, is to have the least restrictive measures necessary to prevent the spread of the virus and “to minimize its impact directly on people, but also its impact on our health-care system, which is strained yet again.”

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Read more: Premier announces doubling of COVID fines, 5-day sick leave benefit for Manitoba

He pushed back against a suggestion that the original intention of restrictions was to “flatten the curve” within two weeks.

“When we went to critical red in November, I do remember having those orders at first trying to message to Manitobans there is hope and we did institute those for two weeks at a time,” Roussin said.

The concept, Roussin said, was to minimize transmission as a means to protect the health-care system and to protect the functioning of society by limiting work absences.

“When we talk about societal disruption, having widespread illness in the younger population — even if we ignore the direct severe effects COVID will have on some of that younger population — those are health-care workers that will be off of work, those are critical infrastructure workers, these are our first responders,” Roussin said.

“So this has severe societal and economic impact, allowing a pathogen like this to be transmitted without check.”

Click to play video: 'Winnipeg COVID-19 unit doctor on current cases'
Winnipeg COVID-19 unit doctor on current cases

He went on to explain that health officials are cognizant of other impacts resulting from public health orders, and these are always “considered and balanced,” but admitted it’s possible the full repercussions of the orders may not be understood while in the midst of the pandemic.

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Later, Brown pressed Roussin on whether or not systematic risk assessments or harm-benefit analysis of health orders on mental health, loneliness, substance use, and other conditions had been done.

Dr. Roussin testified he’s “engaged widely” with various health experts nationally and internationally, and said health officials are aware of the potential harms of health restrictions, and the decisions are never made lightly.

He also pointed out the pandemic itself was taking a toll on people’s mental health.

On Wednesday, chief public nursing officer Lanette Siragusa testified, saying nurses and hospital staff were exhausted while they faced hard choices during the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.

She was questioned about the strain on hospitals, specifically on intensive care capacity. Brown questioned why Siragusa cited 72 intensive care beds when asked about capacity prior to the pandemic, when data he was provided by the province said there were 86.

Read the constitutional challenge here:

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She responded that the extra beds were specifically for cardiac patients.

Brown also questioned Siragusa about a delay in 16,000 elective surgeries.

The chief nursing officer responded that medical experts and surgeons were making decisions about which surgeries to delay and there were no public health orders to that effect.

“Those were really hard decisions that we had to make as a health system and it was not comfortable for anyone.”

Earlier in the week, Church of God Restoration minister Tobias Tissen said his church has allowed Sunday worship despite past and current health orders.

Read more: Manitoba minister says only God has authority to make people wear masks

The court was shown a 10-minute video for a service from inside Tissen’s church in January, where he can be clearly seen, and no one was physically distancing or wearing a mask.“We can’t force anyone to wear a mask,” Tissen said.“We are not counting and we have no authority, scripturally based and based on Christian convictions, to limit anyone from coming to hear the word of God.”— with files from The Canadian Press, Will Reimer, and Brittany Greenslade

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