WINNIPEG — Manitoba schools will no longer notify close contacts of individual COVID-19 infections when students return to class next week.
Dr. Brent Roussin, the province's chief public health officer, said the rapid transmission of the Omicron variant makes contact notification efforts for individual cases less effective.
"Omicron is so highly infectious (and) has a shorter incubation period that by the time you do (the) contact tracing, many of the contacts could already be symptomatic," Roussin said Thursday.
Schools are to now monitor staff and student absenteeism rates and self-reported COVID-19 cases.
If case counts, absenteeism or other symptoms of the pandemic rise in a school, health officials may recommend increased rapid antigen testing or a reduction in higher-risk activities. If the situation worsens, a class, cohort or the entire school could move to remote learning for one week.
"We have to not consider that we're going to eliminate this virus. We need to find ways to mitigate our risk related to this virus," Roussin said.
Students learn best in the classroom, Roussin added, and the risk of severe outcomes from the Omicron variant for children is low.
Education Minister Cliff Cullen said efforts were still underway to improve ventilation systems in many schools. Schools are also required to have physical distancing between students where possible.
The Opposition New Democrats said the Progressive Conservative government has failed to improve ventilation and spacing in classrooms almost two years into the pandemic.
"Teachers have been working really hard to make sure that their classrooms are safe," NDP education critic Nello Altomare said.
"But I'll tell you, the physical space is the physical space. There's still going to be 27 bodies in there."
Students were originally scheduled to return to class Jan. 10, but the province moved to remote learning for one week to let schools bolster their safeguards.
The announcement came as Manitoba health officials noted yet another record number of people in hospital with COVID-19 — 499, up 45 from Wednesday. The number of COVID-19 patients in intensive care rose by one to 47.
The government has been scrambling to keep beds open by moving some hospital patients to different areas of the province. So far in this latest wave of the pandemic, it has not had to ship intensive care patients to other provinces as it did last spring.
An advocacy group for physicians across the province said the health-care system was being heavily taxed.
"Patients are facing lengthy delays for admission, and it's not uncommon for patients to be waiting days in the ER for ... a bed upstairs," said Dr. Kristjan Thompson, an emergency room physician and president of Doctors Manitoba.
"Just last week, I had a patient who was waiting for 10 hours with significant abdominal pain. We just didn't have a bed to take care of him. By the time he got a bed ... he ended up having an appendix that burst."
Doctors Manitoba has been tracking the number of delayed surgeries and diagnostic tests and said the backlog across the province continues to grow.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 13, 2022.
Steve Lambert, The Canadian Press
Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version misspelled Omicron.