Manitoba health-care workers, teachers and other front-line staff will no longer have to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 or undergo frequent testing to keep their jobs.
The requirement, enacted in October, is to end Tuesday, because the province’s COVID-19 numbers, including the number of people in hospital, have continued to improve after spiking in mid-January.
“We’ve seen the large Omicron wave. We have a significant proportion of the population protected now through vaccine,” Dr. Brent Roussin, chief public health officer, said Thursday.
“None of these public health restrictions were in place permanently.”
The vaccine or test requirement included any public-sector workers – including doctors, nurses, child-care workers and jail guards – in contact with people more vulnerable to infection. Almost 200 workers in health care were put on unpaid leave last fall for not complying.
An end to the public health measure was a surprise to Doctors Manitoba, which represents some 4,000 physicians, retired doctors and medical students.
“While the Omicron wave is receding, we are at a critical transitional stage in this pandemic, and our health facilities are not yet back to normal,” the group said in a prepared statement.
The Opposition New Democrats said the Progressive Conservative government is moving too fast.
“It’s the wrong decision and shows the lack of this government’s willingness to prioritize the folks in our communities who are most vulnerable to COVID-19,” health critic Uzoma Asagwara said.
Provincial data Thursday showed 524 people in hospital with COVID-19, 32 of them in intensive care. The total number of intensive care patients, including non-COVID-19 cases, was at 106 – well above the pre-pandemic normal capacity of 72.
To free up beds and deal with the surge in hospitals since the pandemic began, thousands of surgeries and diagnostic tests have been delayed, patients have been moved between communities and hundreds of health-care workers have been shifted from their normal duties.
Ending the vaccine requirement for workers on March 1 will coincide with members of the public no longer having to show proof of vaccination to attend restaurants, concert halls, theatres and other venues.
Some venues are saying they plan to keep the rule in place anyway.
“Our current vaccine and mask requirements will be in place until April 16,” the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre said in an email.
“At that point, we will reassess based on a number of factors, including patron reactions, COVID-19 recommendations from public health, and how the other performing arts organizations of Winnipeg are proceeding.”
More than 90 per cent of patrons who responded to a recent survey said they wanted the theatre to keep asking for vaccine passports.
The Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, after consulting its supporters, also said it is keeping mask and vaccination rules in place until at least the end of March.
“About 758 symphony patrons responded to the survey. Eighty-six per cent favoured keeping the vaccine mandate. Eighty-one per cent favoured keeping the mask mandate. We are listening to our patrons,” read an email from marketing manager Claudia Garcia de la Huerta.
The final major public health requirement – mandatory face coverings in indoor public places – is to be lifted March 15.
Health Minister Audrey Gordon said the government will work with businesses who choose to keep masks and proof-of-vaccination in place, but was short on details.
“We will continue to talk to them about what their needs are around (personal protective equipment) and around enforcement,” she said.
The province’s proof-of-vaccination app, as well as a related one that lets businesses scan QR codes to verify someone’s immunization status, will continue to function, Gordon said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 24, 2022.