As the number of COVID-19 cases in Manitoba nearly doubled Tuesday, the province ramped up its defences, closing casinos and licensed child-care centres and urging people to cancel gatherings of more than 50 people.
Premier Brian Pallister urged Manitobans Tuesday to "pull together" to combat the coronavirus, describing the province's efforts to date as "proactive... preventative (and) prudent."
Beginning Wednesday, six casinos — three of them owned and operated by First Nations — will be closed until further notice, Pallister told a news conference several hours before seven new COVID-19 cases were confirmed, bringing the total in Manitoba to 15.
Licensed child-care centres and preschools will be closed at the end of day Friday, although home-based daycares, which are limited to eight children, will be allowed to continue to operate.
The provincial government is working "to ensure that child care will be available for our front-line emergency staff who need those services," the premier said, referring to health-care workers and members of fire, police and paramedic services who have not been able to find alternative child care after Friday's shutdown.
"It may be possible that some child-care centres, if necessary, may remain open to provide for essential services to Manitobans," Pallister said without explaining how those services would be provided.
That led to some confusion afterward.
"After today’s announcement to suspend child-care services at licensed child-care centres, many new questions have come to light," Jodie Kehl, executive director of the Manitoba Child Care Association told the Free Press.
"We don’t have the answers to these yet. MCCA will be working closely with the province to help identify essential-service workers and facilities that might be able to support their child-care needs."
The province's chief public health officer, Dr. Brent Roussin, followed the Public Health Agency of Canada's lead and recommended cancelling or postponing events with 50 or more people, which would include casinos.
And at Tuesday's press briefing, Roussin announced the immediate suspension of visitors to long-term care facilities. Exceptions for compassionate reasons, including end of life, will be made on a case-by-case basis at the discretion of individual facility managers, he said.
"We know those in long-term care facilities over (the age of) 65 are most at risk," he said.
Manitoba Health announced seven new presumptive cases late Tuesday afternoon, following Monday's confirmation of the province's eighth case, a Winnipeg man in his 80s.
At the morning press briefing, Roussin said the then-eight cases were believed to be travel-related and there was no evidence the virus was spreading in the community.
"We know the risk is expected to increase in Manitoba," he said.
Two additional COVID-19 screening sites opened Tuesday in The Pas and Flin Flon. Another is expected to open Wednesday in Steinbach.
As of Monday, more than 2,280 patients had been tested for COVID-19 at the four sites in Winnipeg and in Thompson, chief provincial nurse Lanette Siragusa told the press briefing; 481 patients were tested at the screening sites on Monday alone.
Patients are referred to the screening sites by Health Links-Info Santé, which has been deluged with calls and quadrupled its number of phone lines in response. The phone service received 2,000 calls Monday; the wait time was nearly two hours, she said.
Shared Health launched a new online screening tool Tuesday that offers advice similar to what is available by calling Health Links. It determines whether callers need to call Health Links-Info Santé to be referred to one of the screening sites or be advised to self-isolate.
The online interactive tool is expected to help with call volumes and reduce wait time, Siragusa said. It had received 13,000 hits before noon Tuesday, she said.
Health Minister Cameron Friesen said he's spoken with other health ministers in provinces where the online tool is being used, and while there have been "growing pains," it has proven effective.
Manitoba Health was also adding an interactive voice response system, so that when people call Health Links they will be asked several screening questions before being connected to a clinician, Siragusa said.
Provincial health officials say they're directing resources to where they're most needed and useful.
The latest updates on the novel coronavirus and COVID-19.
International travellers are being asked to self-isolate for 14 days when they return to Canada, Roussin said; only those with COVID-19 symptoms and people who are close contacts of coronavirus cases are being tested.
Testing began more than two weeks ago for all intensive-care unit patients, personal-care home residents getting flu tests and COVID-19 screening is being added to all respiratory-illness tests, he said.
The premier urged residents to step up and take care of themselves and each other, when they can.
"Manitobans can do their part: donate blood, help a senior shop, shovel your neighbour’s walk," he said. "Do something to make sure you’re helping each other. Be kind to one another, help one another. Together we can overcome any adversity."
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.
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.