As the province sees a surge in children’s hospital admissions amid an early start to respiratory virus season and the ongoing spread of COVID-19, experts say Manitobans should be masking up and getting vaccinated — and health officials should be doing more to encourage the preventative measures.
This week Shared Health reported patient volumes at Health Sciences Centre’s children’s emergency department hit “unprecedented levels” over the weekend as the province deals with a triple threat of viruses — COVID-19, influenza, and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV).
There were 201 patient visits at the children’s ER on Sunday alone, Shared Health said, the highest single-day patient count the department has seen in years.
Despite the apparent rise in hospital visits, Manitoba’s chief public health officer, Dr. Brent Roussin, told 680 CJOB Wednesday the province has no plans to reintroduce a mask mandate, instead saying masks are recommended for “people who are high risk or in crowded or poorly ventilated areas.”
Dr. Aleeza Gerstein, an assistant professor in microbiology and statistics at the University of Manitoba, said that doesn’t go far enough.
Gerstein says experts like Roussin should be cranking up their messaging on the long-term effects and risks of the viruses circulating in our communities.
“I haven’t really heard any messaging from Manitoba public health about vaccines or masks,” Gerstein told Global News Thursday.
“As far as I can tell, the things that we know can protect us (masks and vaccines) – uptake on all of them is low, and there hasn’t really been messaging asking people or telling people about the benefits of any of these things in the last few months.”
Gerstein is hoping for a return to masking in places with vulnerable people, including schools.
“I don’t know why we’re not changing our behaviour and why public health isn’t asking for us to change our behaviour, to protect our hospital infrastructure.”
A provincial spokesperson tells Global News as of Wednesday uptake of the bivalent COVID-19 vaccine was 11.2 per cent in Manitoba. Uptake for fourth doses of the original COVID-19 vaccine was at 18.7 per cent and flu shot uptake was 15.7 per cent, they added.
Winnipeg epidemiologist Cynthia Carr said the time for clear and concise messaging from the province is now.
“We know that one of the greatest risks has been to pandemic management misinformation,” she said Thursday.
“It should be one clear message … (because) the more you’re caught answering questions here, there and everywhere, the more there’s the opportunity for people to get confused, to share misinformation.”
In an email to Global News, a provincial spokesperson said Roussin has been available to media this week.
They noted the doctor has communicated public health’s recommendations — to stay home when sick, stay up to date on vaccinations, and consider masking — through three media outlets.
Roussin’s appearance on 680 CJOB came Wednesday, as Doctors Manitoba — which represents more than 4,000 physicians and medical learners across the province — held a media availability to warn Manitobans about what’s expected to be a brutal flu season.
The group recommended Manitobans get their flu shot and COVID-19 booster, wash hands, stay at home when ill, and mask up.
“We’re going to encourage everyone to be smart, wear a mask,” said Dr. Candace Bradshaw, president of Doctors Manitoba.
“It is strongly recommended by us, especially if you’re out in a crowded place or somewhere that’s poorly ventilated. Businesses can even offer to provide masks for free because we know that will increase uptake. And, you know, just be smart. Don’t go out if you’re sick. That’s the advice.”
— with files from Rosanna Hempel and Keesha Harewood
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.
For full COVID-19 coverage from Global News, visit our coronavirus page.