Health-care workers in Manitoba are now allowed to return to work as soon as five days after their COVID-19 symptoms start without the need for a negative test result.
The newly eased rules, set out by Shared Health, say workers who’ve tested positive may return to work five days after systems started if they feel well enough to “declare themselves fit for work,” have not had a fever for 24 hours and any symptoms do not prevent them from wearing personal protective equipment.
Back in December, the province started letting health-care workers who’d tested positive to return to work with mild symptoms as long as they tested negative for the virus
As well, workers who live with someone who tests positive can continue to work if they remain asymptomatic. If symptoms do develop, they are not required to test if they had COVID-19 within the previous four months and meet the criteria noted above: mild symptoms, no fever, able to wear PPE.
The changes, which took effect Monday and are laid out in a document on the Shared Health website, are “motivated by widespread staffing challenges being experienced across the health system,” a spokesperson said in an email to CBC News.
“These measures are anticipated to allow some staff to return to work sooner, or to continue working with minor symptoms, maintaining vital services for Manitobans in need of health care.”
Doctors Manitoba, an advocacy group that represents more than 3,000 physicians in the province, was not ready yet to comment on the changes.
“We heard the news when everyone else did yesterday, so we are taking time to review and to discuss with some physician experts,” a spokesperson said in an email.
Why change rules?
The return-to-work updates align with public health guidance while maintaining key measures used throughout the pandemic to prevent transmission of respiratory viruses, such as the use of PPE by all staff and mandatory use of medical-grade masks for visitors, the Shared Health spokesperson wrote in the email.
“We note that hospitals are one of the few remaining places where wearing a medical-grade mask remains mandatory.”
The guidance also aligns closely with what has been in place for non-health-care settings, the Shared Health spokesperson wrote.
Widespread community exposure during the recent Omicron waves, combined with vaccination, has resulted in significant immunity in the general population and very low reported incidence of repeat infections, the Shared Health document says.
The guidance is slightly different for immunocompromised health-care workers, who must test for COVID-19 if symptoms develop, regardless of whether they’ve had a confirmed case in the previous four months.
Immunocompromised workers are also advised to stay off the job for 10 days from the start of illness, though it is not mandated.
“The changes balance the need to minimize the risk of COVID-19 transmission in health settings with the need to maintain staffing for vital health services, particularly during the upcoming respiratory virus season,” the Shared Health document says.
Sick time among health-care staff in Winnipeg amounted to 6.73 per cent of all worked hours in the two-week pay period ending Oct. 14, or about 53,500 hours, the spokesperson said in the email.
Since October 2021, there has only been one pay period when the sick rate has been below six per cent.
For the same pay period last year, the rate was 5.91 per cent and 49,300 lost hours, and the pre-pandemic sick time rate in 2019 was 5.38 per cent and 40,200 hours.
“While provincewide data is not easily accessible, it is generally believed Winnipeg’s data reflects what health regions outside the capital city have seen,” the Shared Health spokesperson wrote.