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Manitoba Health Minister Cameron Friesen looks on during a briefing at the Manitoba Legislative Building, in Winnipeg, on Aug. 27, 2020.David Lipnowski/The Canadian Press

Manitoba’s health minister rejected opposition calls Wednesday to apologize for suggesting doctors were causing chaos during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Cameron Friesen had told a legislature committee a day earlier that he questioned the motivation of 200 doctors and other scientists who had signed a letter that warned the pandemic was spiralling out of control in the province.

“I get it, they’re scared and they want the best for their patients and I absolutely agree,” Friesen told the committee after being asked about the letter by New Democrat health critic Uzoma Asagwara.

“But I wonder at the motivation to produce that letter, to generate it at a time when they knew it would have maximum effect in causing chaos in the system, when Manitobans need most to understand that the people in charge have got this.”

One of the physicians who signed the letter called Friesen’s words disgraceful.

“Minister Friesen’s assertion that physicians and PhDs are conspiring to sow chaos during a public health crisis tells us that this minister has totally missed the bigger picture,” Dr. Jillian Horton wrote in an email.

Asagwara called on Friesen to apologize Wednesday and said the minister was “gaslighting” health-care workers.

Friesen did not say sorry.

“While I stand by the words I said yesterday the timing is a challenge to me right now,” Friesen said in the chamber. He declined to speak to the media.

“Because right now, we really believe that Manitobans need reassurances. They really do.”

COVID-19 numbers have spiked dramatically in Manitoba in recent weeks, following a summer lull that saw the province drop to just one active case in July.

Health officials reported 374 new cases Wednesday, raising the active count to 3,772. Intensive care beds across the province, including those used by non-COVID patients, were at 90 per cent capacity.

The strain on the health system had prompted the open letter from the doctors, which said the province was in “grave peril.”

“It is clear that public health is overwhelmed, lacks the power to complete timely contact tracing, and is unable to provide timely results because testing capacity has been overwhelmed,” the letter stated.

Premier Brian Pallister supported Friesen, and said the minister was leading the charge to expand hospital capacity, testing and other services. Health officials have promised to reveal a plan to add hospital beds by the end of the week.

The rising numbers, especially in the greater Winnipeg region, have prompted tighter restrictions and increased enforcement.

Winnipeg police said they were preparing to go to people’s homes to enforce a recent cap on gatherings such as house parties. The province has capped get-togethers at members of a household and five others. Anything more can result in a $1,296 fine, which the police service said is the second-highest penalty of its kind in Canada.

“You can expect fines in a situation like that, as well as the gathering to be broken up,” said police spokesman Const. Rob Carver.

Carver directed people to call the city’s non-emergency number – 311 – if they wish to report rule-breakers.

Countries around the world are working on a coronavirus vaccine, including right here in Canada. Globe and Mail science reporter Ivan Semeniuk discussed the timeline and challenges in developing COVID-19 vaccines during a Facebook live.

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