The Manitoba government launched its strongest salvo yet in the fight against COVID-19 on Friday, suspending public school classes, opening new screening sites and more strenuously discouraging international travel.
Classes will be suspended in the province beginning March 23 for three weeks, including a week on either side of spring break, Education Minister Kelvin Goertzen announced at an afternoon press conference, flanked by Premier Brian Pallister, Health Minister Cameron Friesen and chief provincial public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin.
"We believe that our schools are safe (but) that this is a proactive measure intended to limit the impact (of the coronavirus) on Manitobans as a whole," Goertzen said.
Late in the day, public health officials announced that a fourth person — a Winnipeg man in his 40s — had tested positive for the virus in Manitoba. They said it appears he was exposed to the virus through recent travel to South Korea, the Philippines and Japan.
At a news conference earlier Friday, Roussin told reporters that Manitoba was not looking to close schools at this time. He said such a move — in the absence of proven community transmission of the virus — had "large implications," including its potential impact on the health-care workforce and the fact that students may wind up gathering in other locations in any case.
However, Pallister said the government ultimately decided to lessen the potential impact of the virus by taking a more proactive approach while giving schools and parents time to adjust.
"We're giving notice to families to prepare," the premier said. "We're giving ourselves greater ability to have frontline workers, for example, prepare child care, if need be. We're giving greater opportunities for the system to adapt and to function better."
The school announcement came the same day that one of the four presumptive cases of the coronavirus in Manitoba was confirmed by the National Microbiology Laboratory. The three other cases remain presumptive.
Goertzen said teachers are being asked to be on the job the week before and after spring break to prepare lessons for students to do at home. So far, there is no plan to close child care centres in schools, he said.
The province opened two new COVID-19 screening sites Friday and asked Manitobans to cancel or postpone events with more than 250 people.
Two new screening sites — Mount Carmel Clinic (886 Main St.) and Access Transcona (845 Regent Ave. W) opened at noon Friday, bringing the number in the city to four. The other two are at Access Winnipeg West (280 Booth Dr.) and Access Fort Garry (135 Plaza Dr).
The screening sites aim to get people who may have COVID-19 out of crowded doctors' offices and emergency waiting rooms and somewhere set up to handle them, said Shared Health chief nursing officer Lanette Siragusa. The access centres will continue their regular operations but are specially prepared for screening for COVID-19, she said.
"We would make sure we would manage those patients appropriately as soon as they come in the door," she said. Patients need a referral from Health Links before COVID-19 screening, she said. The next screening sites to open will be in northern and rural Manitoba and the province is also considering drive-thru screening sites – "whatever meets the needs of the community," Siragusa said.
Roussin said all Manitobans have a role to play in containing the coronavirus by washing their hands frequently, avoiding large crowds and curbing unnecessary foreign travel.
"I caution against any international travel at this point," he said.
"Those who are travelling internationally, including to the U.S., need to consider that by the time they return, they may be asked to self-isolate for 14 days," he cautioned, pointing to potential future edicts from health authorities.
Manitoba's first COVID-19 case, a woman in her 40s who recently travelled to the Philippines, was confirmed by the National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg Friday morning, Roussin said.
Health officials are trying to track down other passengers on Air Canada Flight 8622 from Vancouver to Winnipeg last Saturday who may have been exposed to the virus. A bulletin issued Thursday incorrectly listed the flight number as AC 8624.
Work is underway to increase capacity at Health Links to handle an increase in calls from the public. Staffing levels have been doubled and additional people are being pulled from other health areas and being trained, Siragusa said.
Caller options have been streamlined and there is now a dedicated COVID-19 number to press when contacting the centre.
By the afternoon press conference, Friesen said the number of Health Links phone lines had tripled to 104 from 35.
Steps are being taken at the Cadham Provincial Laboratory to increase testing capacity and reduce wait times for results. Siragusa said more than 500 lab tests have been conducted so far, and the people who test positive are being contacted right away.
Health authorities are recommending social distancing measures for all Manitobans, including minimizing prolonged close contact with individuals in public, avoiding greetings that involve touching such as handshakes, and disinfecting frequently used surfaces.
At Health Sciences Centre and long-term care facilities, "efforts are underway to share information," with families of residents to restrict visits from anyone who is ill or has potentially been exposed to COVID-19, said Siragusa.
Signs were being posted Friday at long-term care sites advising visitors are ill and anyone who travelled in the last 14 days not to visit - even if they don’t have symptoms, said Siragusa.
Roussin said employers should review their business-continuity plans and take steps to ensure employees can stay home when ill and not demand sick notes from workers.
Roussin was asked about reports suggesting the possibility of airborne transmission of the virus. According to most data, the virus "is spread almost exclusively through direct contact and droplet spread and by symptomatic people," he said.
Meanwhile, the Canadian Press reported that two Manitoba cabinet ministers were absent from the legislature Thursday after attending a Toronto mining conference where an Ontario attendee later tested positive for COVID-19.
The government would not confirm whether Indigenous and Northern Affairs Minister Eileen Clarke and Agriculture Minister Blaine Pedersen are self-isolating, citing privacy legislation. But it said all provincial employees who were at the conference have been asked to remove themselves from work.
Pallister refused Friday to comment on the situation, citing privacy legislation, "except to say there's good news on those two ministers."
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.
Larry Kusch didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life until he attended a high school newspaper editor’s workshop in Regina in the summer of 1969 and listened to a university student speak glowingly about the journalism program at Carleton University in Ottawa.
Updated on Friday, March 13, 2020 at 2:07 PM CDT: updates with new info
4:00 PM: Updates image.
6:25 PM: Final version
6:52 PM: Updates with edition.