Manitoba’s NDP issued a call Friday for the province to step up with help for COVID-hobbled child-care centres.
"We’ve been hearing a lot of frustration, despair, and isolation from child-care directors," Malaya Marcelino, NDP critic for the status of women, told a news conference at the legislature.
As the Omicron variant of the coronavirus spreads like wildfire among both staff and children, the centres have limited access to high-quality protective masks and rapid antigen test kits, she said.
"This is an urgent matter," Marcelino said. "Things are going to get worse before they get better."
An Early Learning and child-care survey of 332 centres conducted Jan. 6-13 by six University of Manitoba professors revealed 375 test-positive staff and an additional 467 currently isolating due to close contact, for a total of 842 vacancies among those who responded.
That number of COVID-positive workers eclipses the total number in entire pandemic up to Dec. 15, the survey reported.
It found three out of four facilities with larger staff numbers currently have at least one worker who has tested positive, and four out of five (82 per cent) have either a sick staff member or a staff member isolating after a close contact with someone who is infected.
One-quarter of smaller facilities currently have at least one staff member who’s tested positive, and more than half (53 per cent) have either a sick staff member or one isolating due to close contact.
In home daycares, seven per cent of staff had COVID-19 at the time of the survey, and 10 per cent had either a staff member test positive or isolating —meaning one in 10 home daycares presumably has had to shut down, the report said.
Child-care workers are spending many hours with unvaccinated children, many of whom are unmasked and cannot physically distance, the U of M report said.
They often have to do it in poorly ventilated spaces without the protection of KN95 or N95 masks that have been shown to reduce the rates of transmission, and with limited access to rapid tests, the report said.
The NDP called on the provincial government to provide every child-care worker and family with high-quality masks and rapid tests to detect positive cases early and reduce transmission. The government should upgrade ventilation in every child-care facility and offer a pay bump to front-line staff, acknowledging the risk they face providing an essential service, it said.
The province should also create an online dashboard for reporting cases, as well as clear and consistent communication with centres and parents, the NDP said.
"We know that the situation demands urgent action now," NDP Leader Wab Kinew said at the news conference. He held up a sheet of paper that was blank except for a large, black "O" — symbolizing Omicron.
"It’s also a symbol of how we’re all in this together. I’m trying to keep Manitobans hopeful during what is a very difficult time. I feel it, too."
"Your government may have given up. We might feel like giving up on a given day, but don’t quit," said Kinew, who criticized Tory Premier Heather Stefanson for saying this week it was up to Manitobans to look after themselves.
"That’s not the Manitoba I know. The Manitoba I know is one where Manitobans don’t just look after themselves, they look after each other."
The province said it has distributed more than five million medical-grade masks to Manitoba child-care facilities and more than 342,000 sets of PPE for eye protection at no cost to the facilities.
A spokesman for Families Minister Rochelle Squires said her department is committed to making vaccination and testing a priority for public-sector workers, and providing rapid testing kits to licensed centres and child-care homes for designated individuals who have not provided proof of vaccination.
Eligibility for rapid antigen tests is being expanded to include all designated and symptomatic staff who work at child-care centres, as well as all designated employees in other critical service areas who are symptomatic and work directly with clients and vulnerable populations.
Rapid tests for child-care workers and home-based providers are also available at COVID-19 testing sites and at the Fast Pass Testing Sites in Winnipeg, Brandon and Winkler, the spokesman said.
Higher wages are coming as part of the new Canada-Manitoba early learning and child-care agreement, he said.
After 20 years of reporting on the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home, Carol moved to the legislature bureau in early 2020.