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A Winnipeg virus expert who worked in West Africa during the 2014 Ebola virus outbreak said Canadians will be battling COVID-19 for weeks to come.

Jason Kindrachuk, an assistant professor at the University of Manitoba and the Canada Research Chair in emerging viruses, said Tuesday that people shouldn’t take the three-week closures announced by governments and businesses as an indication of when the country’s fight with the the virus will be behind it.

"Three weeks is an extremely optimistic viewpoint," he said.

"It is going to take time... People need to think longer than for the next few weeks. Not only do we have to hit the peak, we have to get past that peak and see a reduction in the total number of cases. And we also have to keep social distancing in place.

"If we take these protective measures away too fast, the virus will be transmitted again."

As for individuals exposed to the virus, Kindrachuk said based on what has been reported from China, Italy, and now the United States, they are finding that "the window is two to 14 days," for infected people going from exposure to symptoms.

He said while doctors know some people experience mild symptoms and others become very sick from the virus, what doctors don’t know yet — because information was delayed coming from China, the first country to experience the outbreak of the virus — is how long the patients who need intensive care, and then get well enough to be moved elsewhere in hospital, take to fully recover.

"We don’t know how long they could have respiratory complications," he said.

"We know there is no vaccine — and the symptoms are really broad. With the flu, a lot of people know they have the flu, but for this one, when they have really mild symptoms they won’t go into a health clinic to get checked. But they are carrying the virus and are transmitting it."

Kindrachuk said he tells people not to think COVID-19 will go through the population like the flu.

"People want to compare this with influenza, but with influenza not everybody goes to a hospital at the same time," he said. "With this, everybody goes to the hospital at the same time. I was in West Africa during Ebola and we saw this as well.

"But we still have a chance of not going down the route of other major cities.

Other officials in Winnipeg were making similar predictions with the time period for the COVID-19 pandemic, with the province’s chief medical officer, Dr. Brent Roussin, saying "it really is impossible to predict at this point. It’s many, many weeks for sure."

Jason Shaw, assistant chief of emergency management for the Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service, said "I think it’s been widely known that this (will last) weeks and months and I think that we’re in this for the long haul.

"This isn’t going away next week."

Meanwhile, both Prof. John McCallum, of the University of Manitoba’s Asper School of Business, and Molly McCracken, director of the Manitoba branch of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, said with the expected length of the COVID-19 outbreak the federal government has to help the economy as well as workers thrown out of work because of shutdowns related to the virus.

McCallum said this is not the time for the federal government to raise any taxes in its upcoming budget.

"In the current uncertain circumstances we face, we are certain that some people are going to need big spending power fast, but it is also certain that if the economy is going to come back best, fastest, investment in new plants, machinery, equipment, etc. is key," he said.

"To me that says, do not make private sector investment decision-makers any more scared to invest with the budget than they already are by raising any corporate or capital gains taxes, thus making investment less attractive and more risky."

McCracken said the federal government needs to do more than it has announced to help workers.

"We need good public policy to prevent people drifting into poverty," she said.

"We’re in uncharted territory here — we’ve never been here before, but there are ripple effects when things, like malls, close down."

McCracken noted that a recent study the CCPA has done found that while 69 per cent of people paid between $78,000 to $96,000 per year have paid sick leave, only 29 per cent of people earning under $28,000 have it.

"They need support so they can stay home if sick. This is a real gap in our sick leave policy."

kevin.rollason@freepress.mb.ca

Kevin Rollason

Kevin Rollason
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Kevin Rollason is one of the more versatile reporters at the Winnipeg Free Press. Whether it is covering city hall, the law courts, or general reporting, Rollason can be counted on to not only answer the 5 Ws — Who, What, When, Where and Why — but to do it in an interesting and accessible way for readers.

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