Public-health officials say they're trying to avoid ordering another lockdown in southern Manitoba, where COVID-19 infection rates are surging.

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Public-health officials say they're trying to avoid ordering another lockdown in southern Manitoba, where COVID-19 infection rates are surging.

Deputy chief provincial public health officer Dr. Jazz Atwal told a news conference Wednesday he doesn't anticipate more lockdowns and suggested he will prioritize keeping schools open when considering future restrictions.

But he couldn't say what the next step will be in an area of the province where hospitalizations among unvaccinated residents are on the rise.

Dr. Jazz Atwal, Manitoba deputy chief provincial public health officer. (John Woods / The Canadian Press files)

Dr. Jazz Atwal, Manitoba deputy chief provincial public health officer. (John Woods / The Canadian Press files)

Average daily case counts in the southern part of the province are higher now than they were before lockdown measures went into effect last November, and officials are still figuring out what to do.

They are monitoring the situation in the Southern Health region, which reported 29 cases Wednesday, and anticipating higher case counts and acute-care hospital-capacity needs over the next six weeks, Atwal said, adding public health plans to make recommendations to the provincial government about potential new measures, but for now is still reviewing data.

"We're going to continue on the public-health side to work with the communities to increase adherence and education for the public-health measures in place and to look at increasing vaccine uptake... and working with those local leaders to help educate and to help relieve any anxieties related to the vaccine," he said.

He said while education is a public-health priority, "nothing's off the table."

In Altona, where vaccination rates are higher than some southern communities but still lower than the regional average, Mayor Al Friesen said he is disappointed the area has not made more progress. He urged people to "be kind," adding many in the region are entrenched in their beliefs.

"We'd hoped that there wouldn't be additional restrictions in place; we do feel that, by and large, people are adhering, most of the community is supporting the current restrictions." — Altona Mayor Al Friesen

Altona's vaccine uptake is 54.6 per cent, while the Southern region as a whole is at 68.2 per cent, well below the provincial average of 83.9 per cent with two doses.

"We'd hoped that there wouldn't be additional restrictions in place; we do feel that, by and large, people are adhering, most of the community is supporting the current restrictions," Friesen said, adding some businesses have expressed interest in increasing rapid testing.

The current restrictions may have helped — vaccinations are continuing as people weigh the implications of not being able to travel or watch their kids play hockey, Friesen said.

Residents will have to learn how to reach across the vaccinated vs. unvaccinated divide and work together, he said.

"I think that will be a real challenge for communities and for families, for organizations and businesses and churches," he said.

"As these cases have names attached and are more than just numbers, the ripple effects will be, perhaps, more pronounced within our communities."

Winkler mayor Martin Harder. (John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Winkler mayor Martin Harder. (John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press files)

In Winkler, Mayor Martin Harder said he's encouraging people to stay home if they're sick and "not make matters worse."

"Everyone has a choice, but everyone has a responsibility to family, friends and your employers to ensure that we are doing all we can to bring this virus to it’s knees," he wrote in an email. "Surely we have had enough! We are experiencing a surge, and we need to prevent more cases and fatalities."

As of the end of Tuesday, there were 171 health-care workers on unpaid leave in Manitoba because they're unvaccinated and are declining to submit to regular COVID-19 testing. Nearly 70 per cent of them — 119 — are from the Southern Health region.

A request to interview Southern Health CEO Jane Curtis was not granted Wednesday. The province has resisted releasing regional test-positivity rates, but Atwal said the data will soon be publicly available online.

"It was felt from a public-health side that it would likely benefit the public to know test-positivity rates in the different regions going forward, and so as a group we decided that we would provide that information to the public," he said.

The regional test-positivity rates are expected to be posted Friday and updated biweekly.

Premier Heather Stefanson said the government plans to do whatever it takes to keep businesses open in the Southern Health region.

— with files from Danielle Da Silva

katie.may@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @thatkatiemay

Katie May

Katie May
Reporter

Katie May is a general-assignment reporter for the Free Press.