Doctors pen letter urging new health minister to do more to protect Manitobans from COVID-19

A group of doctors are urging Manitoba’s health minister to do more to keep students, seniors, hospitals and long-term care facilities safe against COVID-19 with a fourth wave on the horizon.

About a dozen experts in critical care, infectious diseases, oncology, geriatric medicine, microbiology and more signed a letter addressed to Health Minister Audrey Gordon late Wednesday night.

“We have an absolute duty as a society to ensure the well-being of our children, and to that end keeping schools safe and open is an urgent priority,” the doctors wrote. 

“Many children have already fallen behind in so many ways. We must take proactive measures to protect them and to keep schools open.”

The group supports the recently-announced provincial mask and vaccine mandates, though it recommends five more steps to mitigate risks in schools associated with an anticipated fourth wave, driven by the highly contagious delta variant.

The letter says Manitoba needs to urgently evaluate and update ventilation and filtration systems in schools, expand vaccine mandates to first responders and legislate full paid sick leave for workers infected or forced to isolate post-exposure. 

It also calls on the government to up capacity for COVID-19 testing and contact tracing, and consider giving a third vaccine booster dose to high-risk people, including those with compromised immune systems, people living in long-term care facilities and front-line health care workers.

“Even a small absentee rate in health-care workers — which will almost certainly be exacerbated by parents needing to stay home with sick or quarantined children — could bring our health-care system to its knees,” the doctors wrote.

Dr. Jillian Horton is a specialist in internal medicine and a medical educator in Winnipeg, and one of the doctors to sign the letter. (Leif Norman)

As of Wednesday, 77 per cent of Manitobans 12 and up have received two doses. That’s one of the highest immunization rates in Canada, though it doesn’t include thousands of Manitobans who aren’t yet eligible.

Experts around the world say somewhere in the range of 85 or 90 per cent coverage is needed to achieve herd immunity in the presence of the delta variant, which is twice as infectious as the original coronavirus strain.

“Manitoba will not be able to achieve the double vaccination level needed to avoid this next wave, and therefore public health measures to decrease airborne transmission are more important than ever,” the doctors’ letter states.

“Severe COVID-19 infection in children, while tragic, was previously uncommon, however, the experience in other countries suggests that waves dominated by the delta variant are associated with higher levels of severe illness, hospitalization or even death among children.”

Similar concerns exist for seniors, including those who received both doses earlier this year and may experience waning immunity, according to the doctors.

Dr. Philippe Lagacé-Wiens is a medical microbiologist and physician at St. Boniface Hospital, and one of the signatories on the letter. (Philippe Lagacé-Wiens/Facebook)

Manitoba’s hospital and intensive care system was pushed far beyond its pre-pandemic capacities during the third wave, forcing the province to send dozens of critical care COVID-19 patients outside Manitoba for care. 

Despite a relatively low case count and hospital numbers that have dropped significantly since then, the provincial critical care system remains stretched. There were 86 patients in ICUs as of Wednesday, well above the pre-pandemic ICU capacity of 72.

“This is a consequence of over a year of burnout and resignations of health workers, nursing shortages, inadequate and inequitably distributed resources, and delays in medical investigations, surgery and other therapies,” the doctors say.

This isn’t the first time a group of Manitoba doctors have written to elected officials with concerns over provincial coronavirus management plans.

The full list of doctors and their specializations:

  • Dr. Dan Roberts, critical care.
  • Dr. Eric Jacobsohn, critical care and anesthesiology.
  • Dr. Anand Kumar, critical care and infectious diseases.
  • Dr. E.J. Bow, haematology/oncology and infectious diseases.
  • Dr. Allen Ronald, infectious diseases.
  • Dr. Kelly MacDonald, infectious diseases.
  • Dr. Philippe Lagacé-Wiens, medical microbiology and infectious diseases.
  • Dr. Kendiss Olafson, critical care.
  • Dr. Jillian Horton, internal medicine.
  • Dr. Charles Bernstein, gastroenterology.
  • Dr. Christine Peschken, rheumatology.
  • Dr. Phil St. John, geriatric medicine.

Full letter:

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