While Manitobans are hopeful that increased vaccinations might hasten the province’s reopening, a group of local physicians is raising alarm bells about a new variant of COVID-19 that could threaten all of those plans — and maybe even nix plans to reopen schools in September.
According to a statement from a dozen experts in the field, the new, highly transmissible Delta variant, first identified in India, is expected to become the dominant strain of the virus in Manitoba within weeks, and the potential impact it could have would be enough to set back efforts considerably.
The doctors said this variant was not considered in the province’s reopening plans, and the government’s response to the variant will dictate whether Manitoba faces a fourth wave of COVID-19 or not.
The government is proposing to raise capacity limits in stores and at public gatherings and possibly open some indoor facilities that have been closed, if vaccine targets are met by July 1.
The doctors are calling for strong public health measures in addition to increased vaccinations over the next few months, and warn that unvaccinated children, who are expected to be going back to in-person schooling this fall, could bear the brunt of the dangerous new strain.
“We have to do everything in our power to make it safe to keep our kids in school,” said Dr. Jillian Horton, an internal medicine specialist.
“At no point in this pandemic have we done that. We failed to protect our elders in the first wave. We can’t afford to fail our kids in the fourth.”
Dr. Anand Kumar, a professor of medicine at the University of Manitoba and a specialist in critical care medicine and infectious diseases, also emphasized the focus on kids, on top of increasing vaccinations for all Manitobans.
“Children will be a significant focus of the next surge; some may die,” said Kumar.
“Vaccination of all eligible children should be prioritized.”
The doctors are calling for public health officials to take a number of steps to combat the coming variant: create new public health models that take Delta into account; increase vaccination campaigns with expanded hours, workplace vaccination campaigns and more; increase contact tracing capacity before schools reopen; implement mandatory paid sick leave; improve ventilation and safety in classrooms; continue masking and physical distancing requirements; and use stay-at-home orders when needed.
Acting Manitoba Health Minister Kelvin Goertzen told 680 CJOB that while the province appreciates the doctors’ feedback, there’s a process through which all COVID-19-related information gets to government.
“Obviously, we get lots of opinions that things are going too fast or too slow,” Goertzen said.
“Those are important voices, and it’s good that they’re bringing their voices to the table … but all of those voices go into public health.
“Public health looks at the evidence both in Manitoba and around Canada — and around the world — and puts it through that lens, and then brings forward a recommendation, whether it’s on reopenings or restrictions, and then brings those recommendations to government.”
Goertzen also said Manitoba has an excellent track record when it comes to keeping kids in school safely throughout the pandemic — despite some obvious roadblocks — calling the province “among the most successful jurisdictions in North America” on that front.
–With a file from The Canadian Press