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Manitoba brings back masks, requires COVID-19 vaccination for front-line workers

WINNIPEG — Manitoba is bringing back its mask mandate and requiring all front-line provincial employees who work with vulnerable populations to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

WINNIPEG — Manitoba is bringing back its mask mandate and requiring all front-line provincial employees who work with vulnerable populations to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

The changes come as health officials predict a fourth pandemic wave in the province is inevitable. 

"We need to get to higher ground to avoid the tsunami," Premier Brian Pallister said Tuesday.

Workers affected will include doctors, nurses, teachers, early childhood educators and prison guards. Government employees, including members of the legislature, will also be required to have their shots.

They have until Oct. 31 to get both doses or they must undergo regular COVID-19 testing.

The province also announced masks will again be required in all indoor public places, including schools.

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 Dr. Brent Roussin, Manitoba's chief public health officer.

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 the pandemic is now about those who are unvaccinatedand health officials must make sure that it does not lead to more pressures on health care.

Private businesses and organizations should follow the province's lead on mandating vaccinations to keep their employees and customers safe, he added. The province's two largest universities and many other post-secondary institutions have already said students and staff will have to be fully vaccinated before attending campus next month.

The organization that represents doctors in the province supported the move to increased restrictions.

"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.

“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.”

This story by The Canadian Press was first published on Aug. 24, 2021.

Kelly Geraldine Malone, The Canadian Press