Manitoba teachers and a North Dakota health official were caught off guard Thursday when Premier Brian Pallister announced that school staff in this province would soon be able to cross the border to get vaccinated in North Dakota.

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Manitoba teachers and a North Dakota health official were caught off guard Thursday when Premier Brian Pallister announced that school staff in this province would soon be able to cross the border to get vaccinated in North Dakota.

"This is a crazy, Band-Aid solution," said James Bedford, president of the Manitoba Teachers' Society, Thursday. He said he learned about the plan to enable teachers and school staff to drive across the border into the U.S. to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, as he listened to premier's news conference Thursday.

"It's news to me," said Marie Moe, chief communications officer for the North Dakota health department, who is based in Bismarck. "My knowledge is limited to the agreement signed with the governor and Manitoba and Saskatchewan (to vaccinate) truck drivers."

"It's news to me." – Marie Moe, chief communications officer for the North Dakota health department

At Thursday's news conference, Pallister said he was pleased to announce that Manitoba has an agreement with North Dakota and the federal government to expand the "essential workers cross-border vaccination initiative" beyond truckers, to include teachers and education workers in Manitoba.

"I literally had to look to check to see it wasn’t April Fool's Day," said John Finch, a retired educator from Winnipeg. "The idea that teachers would be invited to drive to North Dakota, a foreign country, (to get vaccines) is ridiculous."

The cross-border agreement makes sense for truck drivers who already travel to the U.S., he said, but not for school staff, at a time when the province is urging Manitobans to stay home.

Vaccination plan

Premier Brian Pallister sketched out a plan for Manitoba school staff and teachers to get COVID-19 vaccinations in North Dakota.

He said a school staff person will cross the border, get the vaccine and must return home immediately.

“They’re not going shopping in Grand Forks. Let’s be really clear about that,” said Pallister, who anticipates that vaccinations will be available on weekends.

Premier Brian Pallister sketched out a plan for Manitoba school staff and teachers to get COVID-19 vaccinations in North Dakota.

He said a school staff person will cross the border, get the vaccine and must return home immediately.

“They’re not going shopping in Grand Forks. Let’s be really clear about that,” said Pallister, who anticipates that vaccinations will be available on weekends.

The province is looking to see if there can be two vaccination sites for teachers and school staff, including one for Westman residents. The premier said the International Peace Garden at the Dunseith–Boissevain border crossing would be ideal.

Pallister said many teachers already have options to get the vaccine in Manitoba, depending on their age and where they live.

“This is an extra feature," that many teachers who are close to the border may be glad to avail themselves of, the premier said.

"I’m not trying to overplay it as the sole answer. It’s just another way to help people get vaccinated."

North Dakota is already vaccinating Manitoba truckers with the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines for free, at a rest stop at Drayton.

On Wednesday, 104 truckers from Manitoba rolled in to get the COVID-19 vaccine, said Marie Moe, communications chief for the North Dakota health department.

During the three days it was open last week, of the 297 people who were vaccinated, "the majority were Canadian truckers," she said Thursday.

"Many drivers expressed gratitude for the opportunity for it to be made available," she said, in the state that has a four per cent, 14-day test-positivity rate and where half of its population has received a single vaccine dose.

"Program details (are) being developed as we speak," Pallister said on the same day that Bedford and the teachers union called for all Winnipeg schools to move to remote learning to prevent further outbreaks of fast-spreading COVID-19, and slammed the province for its lack of a solid vaccination plan for staff at Manitoba schools.

"Our goal here is obvious," Pallister said Thursday. "We want to keep our schools open. Our children learn best when they’re in a school. But we need that environment in that school to be as safe as possible. And as soon as possible, we need to have our staff given that vaccine. We need to have our teachers confident that they can be in a safe working environment and learning environment," Pallister said.

Provincial public health officials and Education Minister Cliff Cullen have maintained that schools are safe and not vectors of transmission of the virus, even as COVID-19 case counts and test positivity rates continue to rise. Cullen said during question period Thursday that just four out of 450 Manitoba schools have had to switch to remote learning because of COVID-19 outbreaks.

"We want to get these folks vaccinated as quickly as we can and as safely as we can," the premier said, promising to unveil next week details of the plan that are "being ironed out."

Premier Brian Pallister announced the province has an agreement with North Dakota and the federal government to expand the cross-border vaccination initiative to include teachers and education workers in Manitoba. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Premier Brian Pallister announced the province has an agreement with North Dakota and the federal government to expand the cross-border vaccination initiative to include teachers and education workers in Manitoba. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Pallister thanked North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum for sharing his state's unused vaccine doses with Manitoba's cross-border truckers at a pop-up clinic at the rest area in Drayton, 157 kilometres south of Winnipeg.

Moe, of the health department, said she was unaware of any plan to inoculate Manitoba teachers.

"The planning for this has been underway for a bit of time now," Pallister told reporters. "But we now know that the isolation requirements that are normally there for people when they return from the United States, will not apply. That’s awfully important, of course, for educators who want to get back with their students and don’t have the ability to isolate for two weeks."

Critics called the North Dakota vaccination idea a "rush job" and an ill-conceived, "ad hoc plan" from a premier desperate to quell complaints.

"The time to do it was two weeks ago." – James Bedford, president of the Manitoba Teachers' Society

Not all school staff have passports, live close enough to the border to drive there, or own a vehicle to get there, said Bedford with the teachers society, who dismissed the plan. How are parents to avail themselves of the cross-border vaccination clinic on weekends if they can't get someone to care for their kids because of new pandemic rules for household visitors, he asked. "It's been an ad hoc plan."

Bedford berated the province for not listening to teachers. For months they have asked for a vaccination plan that ensures schools are safe and kids can stay in the classroom until the end of the school year.

"Frankly, they dropped the ball when it came to timely vaccinations," Bedford said Thursday as Manitoba reported 239 new COVID-19 cases. "The time to do it was two weeks ago."

The province dropped the ball when it came to timely vaccinations for teachers, says James Bedford, president of the Manitoba Teachers' Society. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press files)

The province dropped the ball when it came to timely vaccinations for teachers, says James Bedford, president of the Manitoba Teachers' Society. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press files)

NDP Leader Wab Kinew said sending teachers to North Dakota looks like a "rush job" from a premier who's feeling the heat.

"Given the fact there's so many unanswered questions ... I have no choice but to conclude that the premier is simply rushing this," said Kinew. The premier is treating it not as a serious public health initiative "but rather as just a way to try and relieve the pressure that he's been under for failing to prioritize teachers for the vaccine campaign here in Manitoba," he told reporters.

Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont questioned how much planning took place before Pallister announced it.

“As far as I can tell, the premier just made it up on the spot.” – Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont

"As far as I can tell, the premier just made it up on the spot," Lamont said in a scrum.

Pallister said it was planned, and thanked federal Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc for his assistance in providing Manitoba with additional information, "facilitating my ability to announce this today."

Federal sources confirmed Pallister spoke with LeBlanc on Thursday morning, about the idea of exempting teachers who go to North Dakota from the Quarantine Act requirement to self-isolate for two weeks.

However, sources familiar with the conversation said LeBlanc had promised to raise the proposal with the right civil servants, and that the Trudeau government did not have enough time to make any policy decision on the matter.

Dr. Howard Njoo, Canada's deputy chief public health officer, said it's generally best for Canadians to stay home as much as possible, and that provinces have been asked to immunize front-line and essential workers.

"Certainly teachers, who play a very essential role in our society, would be among those groups," Njoo said Thursday.

— With files from Dylan Robertson and Maggie Macintosh

carol.sanders@freepress.mb.ca

Carol Sanders

Carol Sanders
Legislature reporter

After 20 years of reporting on the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home, Carol moved to the legislature bureau in early 2020.

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Larry Kusch

Larry Kusch
Legislature reporter

Larry Kusch didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life until he attended a high school newspaper editor’s workshop in Regina in the summer of 1969 and listened to a university student speak glowingly about the journalism program at Carleton University in Ottawa.

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