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Province declares state of emergency

Groups larger than 50 people banned; $26.7M child-care plan revealed

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This article was published 20/3/2020 (215 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

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The Manitoba government has declared a provincewide state of emergency to reduce the spread of COVID-19, giving legal force to social-distancing directives by provincial health authorities.

Effective 4 p.m. Friday, the province limited the size of indoor and outdoor public gatherings to no more than 50 people for a period of 30 days.

The order includes faith-based gatherings and family events, such as weddings and funerals. It does not apply to hospitals or areas where social services are provided.

Nurses union fears isolation waiver

The Manitoba Nurses Union is warning that waiving the 14-day self-isolation rule to allow essential, irreplaceable health-care workers returning from abroad back on the job is increasing the risk of the spread of COVID-19.

The Manitoba Nurses Union is warning that waiving the 14-day self-isolation rule to allow essential, irreplaceable health-care workers returning from abroad back on the job is increasing the risk of the spread of COVID-19.

In an open letter to Health Minister Cameron Friesen, union president Darlene Jackson called on the minister to reverse the policy decision.

“Failure to reverse this decision could have serious implications for nurse staffing levels if transmission increases among staff due to possible undetected cases,” Jackson’s letter said.

The policy directs health-care workers returning from international travel without symptoms to contact their manager, who will determine if the health-care worker's specific position in the department is operationally required.

The nurses say allowing health-care workers – even essential ones – back on the job puts other workers and the community at risk. Ontario, it said, has already reversed the “misguided policy decision.”

Chief provincial public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin said they may reconsider the policy but for now they’re doing what they can to keep the public safe.

"It's not just a blanket ‘return to work,'" Roussin said Friday at his daily COVID-19 press conference “People would take extra precautions. There will be a risk assessment based on travel and their contacts,” he said. They would have to self-monitor symptoms closely, take their temperature twice daily and be required to wear a mask during the incubation period if they were well and deemed essential to return to work.

"It seems very obvious to say everyone has to self-isolate for 14 days — until some essential service has to be stopped because of it,” Roussin said.

“It’s not the ideal situation,” said Lanette Siragusa, Shared Health’s chief nursing officer. “We would not do that if there were no alternatives.”

-Carol Sanders

What were once guidelines have now become orders, with those defying them susceptible to fines and possible jail sentences.

"These measures that we're taking today will enshrine what quite frankly has been happening in Manitoba," Premier Brian Pallister told a press conference Friday.

For individuals, fines of up to $50,000 are possible; for corporations, fines can be as high as $500,000.

The province's chief public health officer, Dr. Brent Roussin, ordered the immediate closure of all bingo and gaming events. All gyms, fitness centres, athletic clubs and wellness centres offering physical activities are also to be closed.

Transit operators must ensure that riders are able to maintain "a separation of one-to-two metres," between each other, Roussin said.

Child-care plan announced for essential workers

A $27.6-million emergency plan to provide child care for health-care and other essential services workers while licensed daycares are closed during the coronavirus pandemic was announced Friday.

A $27.6-million emergency plan to provide child care for health-care and other essential services workers while licensed daycares are closed during the coronavirus pandemic was announced Friday.

Families Minister Heather Stefanson outlined a three-part plan to make sure child care is available for workers on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic during the three-week shutdown of all licensed child-care facilities that was announced Tuesday by the chief provincial public health officer.

The province will continue to provide licensed childcare centres with their full operating grants and subsidies, totalling up to $7.6 million provincewide, Stefanson said at a press conference with Premier Brian Pallister.

"The funding will continue to flow," said Stefanson, who expects the licensed centres will provide the 16 child-care spaces as allowed under the provincial health officer's guidelines.

The province is setting up an $18-million grant program to help early childhood educators affected by the suspension of child-care services to immediately access funds and begin offering child-care services at their homes or in the community. The Manitoba Chambers of Commerce and the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce will administer the grant program, with up to 12 children in a home, in keeping with the health officer's guidelines, Stefanson said.

A $2-million trust managed by the Winnipeg Foundation will provide capital grants to child-care providers to ensure safe, quality care, the Families Minister said. It is for grants to child-care providers with 16 or fewer children and to home-based providers with 12 or fewer children. The funds can be used to purchase supplies for meeting health-and-safety requirements, such as a fire extinguisher or first-aid kits, or for minor upgrades to physical spaces or to provide learning and care items, like high chairs, mats or books, she said.

The Manitoba Child Care Association (MCCA), which has long complained about a lack of support from the province, with early childhood educators being underpaid and too few spaces being funded, said Friday it's helping the province with the child-care emergency.

"We have shared our extensive knowledge about the capacity, concerns and well-being of the early-learning and child-care sector, including centres and home-based programs, providing advice and recommendations," said Jodie Kehl, the association's executive director.

She said it's positive there is continued funding for programs to meet some of their ongoing operational costs.

"We want our child-care sector to be healthy and robust after this over," Pallister said at Friday's press conference.

-Carol Sanders

The province is also telling "hospitality premises" where food or alcohol is served, movie theatres and places featuring live performances to limit crowds to 50 people or 50 per cent of their capacity — whichever is less.

"These establishments must also be able to ensure social distances of one to two metres between their customers," Roussin said.

Shopping centres, retail businesses, pharmacies and gas stations can remain open, but must ensure proper separation between patrons, he said.

"Now is not the time for business as usual," Roussin emphasized. "Now is a time to make changes to our day-to-day lives."

In addition to declaring the state of emergency, the government announced it would invest $27.6 million to help provide child care to essential front-line workers who need it.

No new presumptive cases of the coronavirus were announced early Friday. The number of presumptive and confirmed cases remains at 17 in Manitoba.

One of the 17 patients remains in hospital, in stable condition. All but one of the 17 cases has been linked to international travel. The remaining one is still under investigation, but Roussin said the evidence so far indicates that it was not the result of "community-based transmission."

Pallister encouraged Manitobans to use social media to out those who don't play by the rules.

"If you come across a situation where people are not observing the social-distancing rules, I would like you to go on the internet and tell everyone not to shop there. Don't go there. Don't honour that kind of behaviour," he said.

That sort of tactic is more effective than a government officer going to a restaurant to enforce social-distancing rules, he said. "This is not asking people so much to take the law in their own hands as to use common sense and to assist each other in protecting all of us."

The premier said the measures taken on Friday should not be seen as the first step to shutting down all but essential services.

"We’re taking the measures we need to be sure that we’re adhering to the advice of our medical experts," he said.

"The advice of shutting down other facilities has not been given to us. The consequences of doing so are very significant for many. So I wouldn’t want this measure today to be misinterpreted as the first step down a slippery slope to everybody just having to live on their own in a cave somewhere, because that’s not what we’re after here."

On Thursday, the Health Links line received a record 2,400 calls, said Lanette Siragusa, chief nursing officer at Shared Health. The average wait time for service dropped by about an hour — to one hour and 15 minutes — from a couple of days earlier. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)

On Thursday, the Health Links line received a record 2,400 calls, said Lanette Siragusa, chief nursing officer at Shared Health. The average wait time for service dropped by about an hour — to one hour and 15 minutes — from a couple of days earlier. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)

Non-urgent surgeries in Manitoba will be suspended, beginning on Monday, to help ensure beds, equipment and supplies remain available to respond to the coronavirus.

Hospitals will continue with scheduled surgeries for cancer, trauma and other procedures that cannot be delayed. Time-sensitive orthopedic, obstetrical, gynecological and eye surgeries will also continue.

All hospitals barred visitors on Thursday afternoon, with the exception of those visiting pediatric patients. CancerCare Manitoba was reviewing patient visits on a case-by-case basis.

Meanwhile, prescription drug renewals will now be limited to a 30-day supply.

As of Friday morning, some 3,354 tests had been performed for COVID-19 at the Cadham Provincial Laboratory.

On Thursday, the Health Links line received a record 2,400 calls, said Lanette Siragusa, chief nursing officer at Shared Health. Yet the average wait time for service dropped by about an hour — to one hour and 15 minutes — from a couple of days earlier, she said.

The province's online self-assessment tool received nearly 30,000 hits on Thursday, bringing the total to 186,000 since its launch on Tuesday.

Nearly 3,000 people had visited the province's community test sites, including 422 on Thursday.

School closures are not dealt with in Friday's order, Roussin said. A three-week closure of public and private schools begins on Monday.

Pallister said Friday it was premature to comment on whether schools might be closed for the remainder of the school year — and the possible effect on Grade 12 school credits.

"It's a great hypothetical question, and it is just that," he told the news conference.

He said the government is "taking all the necessary steps," to address the province's short-term needs while also giving serious consideration to mid- and long-term needs.

"I have heard speculation from spokespeople, for example in Alberta, about not reopening schools," Pallister said. "I'll just simply repeat the adage, 'We're hoping for the best, and we also have to prepare for something less than that as well.'"

carol.sanders@freepress.mb.ca

larry.kusch@freepress.mb.ca

Carol Sanders

Carol Sanders
Legislature reporter

After 20 years of reporting on the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home, Carol moved to the legislature bureau in early 2020.

   Read full biography

Larry Kusch

Larry Kusch
Legislature Reporter

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.

   Read full biography

History

Updated on Friday, March 20, 2020 at 12:40 PM CDT: Updates lead photo

1:31 PM: clarifies all gyms, fitness centres etc. must close

6:38 PM: Updated.

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