COVID-19 close contact identification protocols changing in Manitoba schools

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Public health and Manitoba education officials are changing protocols for how close contacts to COVID-19 cases in schools are identified and managed.

The government said the changes are being put in place to "address the impact of remote learning and self-isolation on the safety and mental and physical health of students."

Moving forward, health officials will consider several factors when determining isolation requirements, such as vaccination status and the use of masks.

Dana Rudy, the deputy minister of Manitoba Education, said data on wearing masks will be tracked to help public health.

"This year, school leaders will be asked to record as part of their data collection whether students or staff were consistently wearing masks during the period of exposure," said Rudy.

She added public health officials will be the ones making the decisions but with more information, they can act quicker and prevent further spread.

Self-isolation for close contacts is also changing as those individuals will now only be required to isolate for 10 days, which is down from the 14-day period. Testing will be recommended on day seven.

"Where there is higher community transmission or outbreaks, the isolation requirements may change to reflect increased risk," the province said.

On top of close contacts and self-isolation changes, there are also changes coming to the definitions of a school case, as well as a school outbreak.

A school case is now classified as a staff member, student or volunteer in Kindergarten to Grade 12 who was at the school during the 14 days before symptoms developed or a positive test date if asymptomatic, as well as within 10 days after symptoms developed, or if there is a positive test date if symptomatic.

Outbreaks will now only be declared if there are at least three school-related cases in a 14-day period of the other cases.

The new definitions will allow for more consistent reporting and if an outbreak is declared, further measures can be put in place, the province said.

Dr. Brent Roussin, the chief provincial public health officer, said these changes are being put in place to help with more consistent reporting, but also to help students and their mental health.

"We also need to look at the long-term effects and decisions we make for (our kids)," said Roussin. "One of the biggest things that we have learned and continue to learn about is the negative effects of the public health orders and isolation, particularly these full lockdowns that we've had in the past, on the mental and physical wellbeing."

Officials said these changes will come into effect on Tuesday.

Rudy was also asked why this new reporting program is being put into place now instead of in the summer so it was ready for when the school year started.

She said the new isolation rules from public health didn't come into play until Sept. 13.

"We had the opportunity to engage with our stakeholders and meet with individuals to really ensure we understood exactly how to implement it in a successful way, so we took the extra time," said Rudy.

James Bedford , president of the Manitoba Teachers’ Society said it's good to have clear definitions early on in the school year, since the province struggled last year with data and information.

"I saw this as a bit of a recognition that the province, public health, had to be very, very clear going into this school year about how they are going to define things," he said.

Bedford added while the school outbreak definition is clearer, it still involves a certain amount of data collection that has to be done accurately and in a timely fashion.

"We raised these concerns last year and the concern is still valid this year that they are putting an awful lot of responsibility onto the shoulders of school principals who are going to be tasked with the front line data collection and then working to transmit that information to public health."

Bedford said The Manitoba Teachers’ Society is in conversation with the province about what the expectation is for principals, and he expects those talks to happen throughout the school year.

- With files from CTV's Michelle Gerwing.