The onus is on Manitobans to reduce their own risk of contracting COVID-19, the premier said Wednesday.

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Premier Heather Stefanson said Wednesday that Manitobans must learn to live with the COVID-19 virus.

MIKE DEAL/WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Premier Heather Stefanson said Wednesday that Manitobans must learn to live with the COVID-19 virus.

The onus is on Manitobans to reduce their own risk of contracting COVID-19, the premier said Wednesday.

Officials warned it is very likely all Manitobans will be exposed to the omicron variant in the coming weeks, so they will have to use the tools already provided by the government to help mitigate infections.

"This virus is running throughout our community and it’s up to Manitobans to look after themselves," Heather Stefanson told reporters.

"We must all learn to live with this virus; there must be a balance."

Dr. Jazz Atwal, the deputy chief provincial public health officer, echoed the premier’s words, adding people should reduce their contacts and interactions to lower their own risks of contracting the virus, as well as get vaccinated as soon as they can.

"We are telling people to slow down," he said. "Whatever activities you were planning on having this week, cut them back. If you limit those interactions, that will help mitigate some of those risks related to COVID-19.

Omicron is a very different virus from previous variants, he said. Owing to the rate of transmissibility, a person infected with the delta variant would usually infect three to four additional people, whereas someone infected with omicron often spreads the virus to 12 to 16 additional people.

With omicron, it takes about three days after exposure for symptoms to appear and for someone to be infectious. For delta, it’s around five days.

"As we learn more, we will adjust our approaches to identify those most at risk and mitigate the effects of COVID-19," Atwal said, adding the province is focusing on vaccinations, testing those most at risk of severe outcomes, and using treatments such as antibodies and antivirals.

Preliminary data shows omicron has less severe outcomes in people who are vaccinated.

Compared to the unvaccinated, people with one dose of vaccine are three times less likely to end up in hospital due to COVID. People with two doses are six times less likely and people with three doses are 26 times less likely, according to new provincial data presented Wednesday by Dr. Joss Reimer, medical lead for the province’s vaccine implementation task force.

For ICU admissions, compared to the unvaccinated, people with one dose of vaccine are three times less likely to be admitted to intensive care, those with two doses are 19 times less likely and those with three doses are 139 times less likely.

With students returning to in-person learning next week, Stefanson said the province has been making sure schools can reopen safely. The province has distributed 500,000 rapid test kits to schools and is holding vaccine clinics in schools.

"The best place for our children is in schools," she said.

A joint statement from the Manitoba Pediatrics Society and the Canadian Paediatric Society distributed by Doctors Manitoba reiterated Stefanson’s sentiments, pointing out the government has been listening to their group’s advice on how to safely open and operate schools.

"In-person learning is an essential part of children’s well-being. With omicron spreading in Manitoba, it’s more important than ever for the appropriate precautions be in place when students, teachers and staff return to schools next week, including good quality masks, frequent hand hygiene reminders, physical distancing, good ventilation and getting vaccinated or boosted as soon as eligible," Doctors Manitoba said in a statement.

However, Stefanson warned that doesn’t mean they won’t consider changing restrictions in the future. She said they are speaking daily with public health officials and the government sets policies based on advice from doctors, but would not elaborate further despite being asked multiple times if doctors had recommended tightening restrictions.

Health Minister Audrey Gordon emphasized how important it still is to get immunized against COVID-19.

"The way you stay out of the emergency room hallways and the way you stay out of our hospitals and our ICUs is to recharge your immunity by getting your third dose [of vaccine]," Gordon said.

She explained public health officials are looking at the charts of ICU patients and found one-third were there for just COVID treatment. The other two-thirds were what she called incidental infections — people admitted to the hospital for a medical reason other than COVID but had still tested positive for the virus.

When it comes to staff shortages, Stefanson said the provincial government is pushing regulatory colleges to speed up the accreditation of international-trained nurses.

"We will be challenging the College of Registered Nurses of Manitoba and the College of Licensed Practical Nurses of Manitoba to ensure we license as many of these applicants as soon as possible.

"Manitobans expect this sense of urgency and our dedicated health-care workers need more assistance and support."

However, the Manitoba Nurses’ Union is cautioning that the province’s hospitals, especially the emergency departments, are at max capacity. They are packed with a wide swath of patients needing care.

"As such, the lines are blurring within the system as designated wards flow into other areas. Sadly, given the desperate state of our system coupled with insufficient staff to add additional beds ... you have a frontline that is in need of resuscitation itself," said union president Darlene Jackson.

The province needs strong leadership and to be proactive, she added.

"The longer we stay stuck here, the worse off patient care will be for all Manitobans," she said.

If the premier and public health officials are telling Manitobans to look after themselves, the least they could do is offer more support, such as testing kits, masks and funding, NDP Leader Wab Kinew said.

"I think Manitobans should be very concerned with the impacts we are going to see on our health-care system and consequently for the average person out there."

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