WINKLER — Nearly one-quarter of Manitoba's health-care staff who deal directly with the public have not disclosed their COVID-19 immunization status, just days before unvaccinated workers must submit to frequent testing.
Roughly 10,000 of 42,000 workers — physicians, residents, nurses, personal care home workers and aides — have refused to reveal their status despite being mandated to advise their employer.
Workers who aren't fully vaccinated will be subject to frequent testing or go on leave — without pay or benefits — beginning Monday.
As of noon Friday, 29,707 workers had indicated they are fully vaccinated — about 94 per cent of submissions — and 26,220 of them had been validated, a spokesperson for Shared Health said.
Direct-care workers have validated their vaccination status through discussions with managers, an online portal, or an automated validation process using their personal health number (if they consented).
"It is our expectation that the number of validated fully vaccinated direct-care workers will continue to rise over the weekend and into the coming weeks," the spokesperson wrote in a statement.
So far, 1,801 health-care staff, who work across the province in a variety of roles and professions, have disclosed they aren't fully vaccinated and will have to undergo regular testing, the spokesperson said.
Manitoba's health minister says family members may have to help their loved ones in long-term care if unvaccinated health-care workers leave facilities short-staffed as of Monday.
"There are many contingency plans that are being looked at right now... Plans are in a state of flux," Audrey Gordon told a news conference in Winkler Friday.
Family members of residents in Salem House, a Southern Health-run personal-care home in Winkler, received a letter from the facility this week warning they could be asked to assist in the coming days with laundry, feeding, personal care and other needs.
A Free Press reporter and photographer went to the facility Friday to speak to families outside. Salem House staff quickly ejected the pair.
Southern Health region CEO Jane Curtis said contingency plans might include preparing simpler meals if, for example, there's a shortage of kitchen staff.
"We would never put families into a position where they have to come in, but we know there are families out there that would be willing to and happy to," she said.
Gordon and Curtis answered questions about the region’s vaccination rate Friday after they announced funding to expand the Winkler hospital, in an effort to avoid patients having to travel to Winnipeg for acute care.
A building used for overnight stays at the Boundary Trails Health Centre will be expanded to create 24 beds and more space for nurses.
Another two-storey building is still being planned for community-health programming, which could include classes, cancer services, home care and public-health work.
Construction should start next summer.
The project will cost $64.4 million, though the government news release did not specify what share of that funding will come from the province as well as the hospital foundation. Nor did it say how it plans to staff the expansion amid a provincewide shortage of doctors, nurses and other health-care professionals.
"Just a few weeks ago, Boundary Trails closed 10 medical beds because of a lack of nurses," NDP health critic Uzoma Asagwara said.
"Not only are these promised expansions still years away from ever being used by Manitobans, the hope they could be properly staffed is minimal — at least as long as the Pallister PCs are in power," the MLA for Union Station said in a statement. "Boundary Trails area deserve better than a government that makes promises while cutting resources."
"Not only are these promised expansions still years away from ever being used by Manitobans, the hope they could be properly staffed is minimal." – NDP health critic Uzoma Asagwara
A spokesperson for Shared Health said Friday that planning for the project "is ongoing and will determine the long-term staffing needs for the facility. Various recruitment and retention strategies will be used at both a regional and provincial level to ensure appropriate staffing is in place."
Tami Giesbrecht, an outreach manager in the Southern Health region who helps people with anxiety, including nurses and teachers, said she gets busier the longer the pandemic lasts.
"The anxiety level there is extremely high," she said. "It's just a lot to deal with, and a lot of decisions to make, too, like, 'Am I going to get vaccinated? Am I not?'" she said as she left a store in Winkler after grocery shopping Friday.
Worries have surpassed catching COVID-19. Now, it might be that, plus survivor's guilt and office downsizing, among other things, Giesbrecht said.
Gabby is a big fan of people, writing and learning. She graduated from Red River College’s Creative Communications program in the spring of 2020.
After 20 years of reporting on the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home, Carol moved to the legislature bureau in early 2020.