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Northern Manitoba's first positive test prompts social-media shaming

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When Manitoba's chief public health officer refused to specify the community with the first positive case of COVID-19 in the North on Monday, many in Flin Flon already knew it was there, thanks to contact tracing calls from health nurses.

Within hours, rumours spread through the town of 5,000, speculating where the person went, who they might have infected and publicly shaming them.

Within hours, rumours spread through Flin Flon, speculating where the person went, who they might have infected and publicly shaming them. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press files)</p></p>

Within hours, rumours spread through Flin Flon, speculating where the person went, who they might have infected and publicly shaming them. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press files)

"The social media backlash has been unbelievable," said the mother of the 23-year-old woman who tested positive. They asked not to have their names published.

When the online attacks got worse, the worried mother contacted the RCMP and took to Facebook on Sunday night to set the record straight about where her daughter went after returning from Mexico on Mar. 13.

"People need to know the facts," the woman said by phone from Flin Flon, the town 765 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg where her daughter feels fine physically but is hurting emotionally from the online vitriol and didn't want to be interviewed.

In smaller centres where there is little anonymity, her mother said, it's especially important that public health officials share more specific information about people's comings and goings to prevent the spread of false information and to ease people's fears. That's what compelled her to post information on a community website and to speak to the Free Press.

When her daughter and her daughter's boyfriend returned from Cancun to Winnipeg on March 13, they felt fine. There was no order to isolate, they were asked no questions about their health at Canada Customs and the risk the virus posed was still considered "low," the mother said.

After they drove home to Flin Flon, he played hockey on March 14 and the couple went to the Unwinder nightclub that night.

"The social media shaming needs to stop," her mom posted on Facebook on Sunday. "She didn't go out looking to catch this! She was one of many people in our community that takes a winter vacation."

On March 15, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the federal government would discuss whether stricter border measures would be implemented to halt the spread of COVID-19 in Canada. The couple in Flin Flon -- they still showed no symptoms -- decided to self-isolate to be safe.

Five days after returning home, she lost her sense of smell and taste, a possible symptom of COVID-19, and she was tested. Six days later, she learned she tested positive.

Soon after she learned she had contracted the virus, the information became known to others in the community when they were contacted by public health officials. They were tracing all those who were in her close proximity and had prolonged contact with her, advising them to monitor themselves for symptoms.

The word got out about the well-known young couple. They were put under the social media microscope and it was merciless.

"The social media shaming needs to stop," her mom posted on Facebook on Sunday. "She didn't go out looking to catch this! She was one of many people in our community that takes a winter vacation."

Now, she said her daughter is struggling with the stigma, something that no one should have to face, said the chief provincial public health officer.

"This is a time where Manitobans need to be together in this," Dr. Brent Roussin said Tuesday at his daily COVD-19 briefing in Winnipeg. "Anyone who's affected, we need to have empathy for, and support one another -- not turn on each other."

"Fear and stigma are a virus's allies," he said. "We need to come together to try to support people, rather than turn on people."

The young woman, who is the first person to test positive for COVID-19 in northern Manitoba, is feeling "pretty beat up" emotionally, said her mother.

She was comforted by a phone call Tuesday afternoon with Dr. Michael Isaac, a medical officer of health, who told her they're looking at how to better convey information about the virus in small towns, she said. Her daughter, who has been asymptomatic (showing no symptoms) for more than 14 days, will be listed as "recovered" today when non-identifying statistics are released publicly by Manitoba Health, she was told.

The mom said she advocated for more testing and quicker turnaround times for lab results from communities in the North. Flin Flon is considered a hub for residents of many First Nations, where crowded homes and a lack of services puts them at a higher risk for COVID-19.

Roussin said the turnaround time for testing and notifying someone of a positive result is 48 hours from the time the Cadham Provincial Laboratory in Winnipeg receives the sample. He couldn't comment on the six-day wait for a test result but said every Manitobans awaiting a test result is told to self-isolate no matter where they live.

He urged all Manitobans to stay home and practise social distancing to prevent the spread of the virus. So did the worried mom in her Facebook response to Flin Flon.

"She is the first case in our town and won't be the last if people don't follow the rules."

carol.sanders@freepress.mb.ca

Carol Sanders

Carol Sanders
Reporter

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.

Read full biography

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Updated on Tuesday, March 31, 2020 at 9:33 PM CDT: Fixes typo

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