As students head back to class with the fourth wave of COVID-19 on the horizon, Manitoba is still finalizing its plans to test unvaccinated workers, with no word on increasing health-care system capacity.
Public health officials are working with the provincial education department on COVID-19 protocols for contact tracing, case management and notification of the virus's spread within schools, deputy chief provincial public health officer Dr. Jazz Atwal said early Tuesday afternoon.
Later Tuesday, Education Minister Cliff Cullen said the existing protocols will remain in place and the province's school case count data will be updated online twice weekly.
The province is expected to provide details soon on testing and monitoring of provincial employees who don't get inoculated, per a mandate requiring front-line provincial employees who work with vulnerable populations to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 or be tested regularly.
Deputy chief provincial public health officer Dr. Jazz Atwal said Tuesday those plans will be released to the public as soon as they're ready.
The province has not said how it will avoid having to send patients out of province for treatment again if Manitoba ICUs overflow as they did in the third wave.
Asked about that on Tuesday, Atwal cited continuous health-care staffing challenges in Manitoba and across the country. He said Shared Health "has done a tremendous job to increase staffing levels as best as it can."
"From a public health perspective, we do have to take that capacity into account. We have to be realistic on what we're able to accomplish from a personnel perspective, and that's why we want to keep our case numbers low so the impact on the acute-care system is minimal."
Case counts are currently low, but public-health officials expect them to increase this fall. They're aware of the implications of school-aged children transmitting the virus to older relatives, and are still urging everyone 12 and older to get vaccinated.
Public-health officials don't want to see schools close again, but Atwal acknowledged that could happen.
"It's hard to predict that future. We're doing what we can from a public-health perspective to ensure kids stay in school and have as much of a normal school year as they can," he said, adding the future "depends on how Manitobans behave."
Sept. 7 was the deadline for designated provincial employees — including health-care workers and teachers — to get their first dose of vaccine. Under provincial vaccine mandates, those workers are required to get vaccinated or be subject to regular testing and provide proof of negative test results in order to work.
The province doesn't yet know how many designated workers are unvaccinated but will be able to track how many unvaccinated health-care workers require testing.
Last month, the provincial government announced that employees who work with vulnerable people and still choose not to be vaccinated will have to undergo a COVID-19 test up to three times a week. The deadline to get a second dose is Oct. 17.
"On the testing side, in relation to that specific mandate that's going to come into effect, we're still finalizing that. Once details of that are available, we will provide that to the public," said Atwal.
Emphasizing that vaccines prevent severe illness, Atwal said public-health officials want to avoid having to cancel more surgeries and diagnostic tests.
"It's the unvaccinated that are impacting the acute-care system; that's what we're seeing in other provinces," he said.
"Once our numbers start to increase, we're going to have to cancel surgeries for those who are vaccinated and for those who are unvaccinated," Atwal later added.
On Tuesday, the province announced 36 new cases of COVID-19 and six additional deaths, putting Manitoba's death toll at 1,198.
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Since Thursday, 215 new cases have been detected. The test positivity rate is 2.7 per cent provincewide. In Winnipeg, it's 1.4 per cent. Public health declined to release test positivity rates for the Southern health region, which has the highest rate of unvaccinated residents in Manitoba.
Manitoba is still trying to reach at least 80 per cent vaccine uptake across the province, vaccine task force lead Dr. Joss Reimer said. The youngest who can be offered the vaccine are kids who will turn 12 this year. Sixty-four per cent of Manitoba youth aged 12 to 17 have been fully vaccinated.
It's expected immunocompromised Manitobans will eventually be offered a third dose.
"We're actively working on this question and I hope that very soon we'll be able to provide Manitoba with more information about who should get a third dose and when," Reimer said.
Katie May Reporter
Katie May reports on courts, crime and justice for the Free Press.