After stressing the importance of communication in preventing the spread of COVID-19, Manitoba’s health minister cut short a press conference after 16 minutes Tuesday without answering further questions from reporters about how the province is prepared to handle the virus once it arrives.
Health Minister Cameron Friesen was joined by Dr. Brent Roussin, the chief provincial public health officer, to announce that Manitoba is working with the Public Health Agency of Canada to bulk buy $35.2 million worth of personal protective equipment with other provinces and territories. The COVID-19 supplies include items such as procedure and surgical masks, N95 respirators, gloves, thermometer covers and sanitizer.
The press conference, held in the hallway outside Friesen’s office, was packed with reporters with many questions about the virus that claimed the life of its first Canadian this week, rocked world markets, prompted Air Canada to cancel flights to Italy and the Winnipeg Jets to ban reporters from the dressing room.
"The risk of acquiring COVID-19 in Manitoba remains low but as we see the transmission of this virus to other parts of the world, that risk is likely to increase over time and we need to be prepared for identification of this virus in Manitoba," Roussin said at the start of the press conference, noting that, as of Tuesday, there were still no laboratory-confirmed cases in Manitoba.
Friesen told reporters that Manitobans are "in this together," saying the public can help prevent the potential spread of the virus while health officials are doing everything they can to prepare for it.
"Our response takes all of us — all of us taking precautions," Friesen said. "Maybe now is a good time, instead of shaking hands, to bump someone’s elbow."
He reminded Manitobans to wash their hands frequently, cough into their sleeve, not their hand, and to stay home when they’re sick. "Now is not a good time to see someone in a hospital or personal care home if you’re not feeling well."
Roussin said there’s no plan to cancel public events and they’ve increased the number and scope of COVID-19 testing being done and the lab capacity to run the tests. All international travellers with symptoms and all severely ill people admitted to hospital intensive care units are now tested, he said. Soon they’ll be adding COVID-19 testing for all patients with respiratory symptoms, said Roussin. On Thursday, he said 97 Manitobans in total had been tested. Now, 40 tests per day are being conducted, Friesen told the house during question period late Tuesday.
At his morning press conference, Friesen said lessons were learned from the H1N1 outbreak in 2009 when there was a delay in receiving needed supplies. Now, before the first COVID-19 case is confirmed in Manitoba, it is the first province to sign onto the national procurement effort to get personal protective equipment to deal with it.
"We know that this will significantly increase the capacity should we need it," said Friesen before an emergency funding bill for the $35.2 million was passed in the house and given royal assent Tuesday.
He said he received assurances on Friday from federal counterparts that the order with other provinces and territories for supplies will be finalized quickly.
"They will work hard to get us the supplies we need not later but sooner."
In Manitoba, preparations for COVID-19 are well underway, Friesen said.
"Behind the scenes, Manitobans should understand there are comprehensive plans being made, significant work undertaken to inventory — to say ‘Where are we now? What capacity do we have? What would that look like if we need to go to this level, or this level or this level,’" the health minister said, without offering any examples of what action would be taken if there is an outbreak that escalates.
After question period, Premier Brian Pallister said communicating about Manitoba’s COVID-19 preparedness is a balancing act.
"I think there’s always a concern about balancing the need for preparedness and instilling confidence but making sure that confidence is justified and justifiable," he told reporters. "You don’t want to alarm people on the one hand; on the other hand, you want to make sure you address causative factors that may cause alarm."
Pallister said Manitoba is in better shape than any other province to withstand the economic hit of a COVID-19 outbreak. He said Manitoba has responded to a request by the federal government to share COVID-19 readiness issues ahead of the first ministers meeting in Ottawa Friday but did not say what those were.
NDP Leader Wab Kinew said the provincial government needs to share more details about its preparations with the public and those working on the front lines of the health-care system that’s still reeling from funding cuts.
"There’s a bunch of these open questions that the government needs to address," Kinew told reporters outside the chamber.
"For instance, the government has said everyone who presents with respiratory symptoms should be getting tested for COVID-19 — that hasn’t been communicated to the people on the front lines yet," said Kinew. "Why isn’t that happening?"
People need to know what the plan is if they’re not able to work in the event of a pandemic with major economic and health fallout, said Kinew, noting it’s "important to recognize we’re not there yet."
"There does need to be a contingency plan should this actually turn into a recession or a severe economic crisis," Kinew said.
Carol Sanders’ reporting on newcomers to Canada has made international headlines, earned national recognition but most importantly it’s shared the local stories of the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home.
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