Masks will once again be mandatory in all indoor settings and government employees working with vulnerable people must be fully-vaccinated — or face regular testing — under Manitoba’s latest COVID-19 public health orders.
The changes come as health officials predict a fourth pandemic wave in the province is inevitable.
“Vaccines are our protection against the fourth wave, vaccines are our protection against future lockdowns, vaccines are how we get our lives back,” said Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister.
“Vaccines are our safest and only way out of this pandemic.”
Pallister said workers affected will include health-care providers, teachers, early-learning providers, prison guards and all government employees, including members of the legislature.
They will have to be fully immunized by Oct. 31 or undergo regular COVID-19 tests, up to three times a week for full-time employees. Proof of a negative test result will be required before the employees are allowed to resume working.
The returning mask mandate — which was lifted at the beginning of August — will require masks be worn in schools, Manitoba’s chief public health officer, Dr. Brent Roussin, said.
Read more: Manitoba reports 40 new COVID-19 cases
The province had previously said masks wouldn’t be mandatory in classrooms, although all Winnipeg school divisions have said face coverings would be required when school returns.
The province is also expanding the list of facilities, events, and services that will require those attending to be fully-vaccinated under the new orders. Pallister said details on that measure would be coming Thursday or Friday.
Roussin said word on exactly when the new health orders will go into effect will also come later this week.
Roussin said the stronger orders are needed to guard against the more contagious Delta variant.
“By requiring people working with vulnerable populations to get immunized, wear masks and expand the use of vaccine passports, we can protect those most at risk of COVID-19 and avoid lockdown measures that affect everybody,” said Roussin in a provincial release.
“This is now a pandemic of the unvaccinated and we have to make sure that this does not lead to health effects on others and our health-care system.”
The fourth COVID-19 wave has emerged in other areas of Canada. In Manitoba, there has been a low number of daily cases — with 40 new infections Tuesday — and the five-day test positivity rate was at 2.4 per cent provincially.
Pallister said precautions must be taken before numbers start to rise, especially as children head back to classrooms next month.
“In a general sense, Manitoba has delayed the onset of each wave. But when it has come, it has hit us intensely,” Pallister said. “Manitoba is not an island.”
Manitoba was forced to send COVID-19 patients to intensive care units in other provinces earlier this year when the third wave of the pandemic overwhelmed the health-care system.
New modelling released Tuesday shows that COVID-19 could overwhelm the acute-care system within two months after the fourth wave arrives in Manitoba.
Dr. Jazz Atwal, deputy chief provincial public health officer, said without higher levels of immunizations and more restrictions, intensive care units could be overwhelmed again.
It could be made worse if cases surge during the annual flu season, he added.
The Delta variant is already causing a significant increase in cases throughout Western Canada in provinces that loosened restrictions earlier than Manitoba.
“We can see what’s happening in other jurisdictions. We know that fourth wave is heading in our direction,” said Roussin.
More than 81 per cent of eligible Manitobans have had their first dose of a vaccine and 75.5 per cent are fully vaccinated.
Roussin said private businesses and organizations should follow the province’s lead on mandating vaccinations to keep their employees and customers safe.
‘This pandemic still poses a serious threat’
The organization that represents doctors in the province supported the move to increased restrictions after calling on the province to mandate vaccines for health-care workers Monday.
“While the risk may feel low, this pandemic still poses a serious threat,” said Dr. Kristjan Thompson, president of Doctors Manitoba, in a news release.
Opposition NDP health critic Uzoma Asagwara criticized the Progressive Conservative government for loosening the restrictions too early and making people lift their guard.
“It sends mixed messages to Manitobans,” Asagwara said.
Manitoba Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont said he was pleased with the changes, especially requiring students and teachers to wear masks when they return to classrooms.
“We are still very concerned that these announcements are coming late, especially for the school year, for people to get vaccines and for them to be fully effective,” Lamont said in a news release.
James Bedford, president of the Manitoba Teachers’ Society, said educators have been asking for both mandatory vaccines and a mask mandate. He said students, teachers and parents are all facing anxiety going into the new school year and this will help appease many of those fears.
Read more: Manitoba reports 27 new COVID-19 cases
“Anything that adds to the anxiety level is not going to be good for the mental health of those who work in the system, nor those who learn in the system.”
Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman told Global News the city will review details of the province’s vaccination policy and his expectation is “the City of Winnipeg will undertake to align with the Province where feasible.”
“Today’s update from provincial health officials should serve as a reminder that our community is still battling COVID-19,” Bowman said in a statement.
–With files from Global’s Amy-Ellen Prentice and Kelly Geraldine Malone at The Canadian Press
Questions about COVID-19? Here are some things you need to know:
Symptoms can include fever, cough and difficulty breathing — very similar to a cold or flu. Some people can develop a more severe illness. People most at risk of this include older adults and people with severe chronic medical conditions like heart, lung or kidney disease. If you develop symptoms, contact public health authorities.
To prevent the virus from spreading, experts recommend frequent handwashing and coughing into your sleeve. They also recommend minimizing contact with others, staying home as much as possible and maintaining a distance of two metres from other people if you go out. In situations where you can’t keep a safe distance from others, public health officials recommend the use of a non-medical face mask or covering to prevent spreading the respiratory droplets that can carry the virus. In some provinces and municipalities across the country, masks or face coverings are now mandatory in indoor public spaces.
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