Community transmission of the COVID-19 virus was confirmed in Manitoba Wednesday, triggering new protocols for staff entry into hospitals and care homes, and placing new urgency on the message to stay home.
Chief public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin said community transmission of the coronavirus was inevitable as the number of cases grew.
Before now, he had linked all cases in Manitoba to travellers or their contacts. On Wednesday, he said there were four to five cases that could not be accounted for in that way.
"Now is our time to act to interrupt the spread of this virus, and we can only do so with the help of Manitobans," he said. "Stay home, stay home and stay home."
New measures to screen hospital and personal-care home employees for signs of COVID-19 were announced Wednesday after news broke that at least one health-care worker had showed up for work with symptoms of the virus.
On Wednesday, officials confirmed that health-care workers in at least three Manitoba health facilities — St. Boniface Hospital, Grace Hospital and Selkirk Regional Health Centre — have tested positive.
Public health officials no longer relying on the honour system to make sure unwell front-line staff don't go to work.
From now on, staff at acute-care facilities and nursing homes who work closely with patients will have their temperature checked and be required to answer questions about their travel history and any symptoms they may have.
"The staff who have been COVID-positive have been at work and not feeling well and we need them to stay home," said Lanette Siragusa, chief of nursing at Shared Health.
"We must ensure that we are taking every possible measure to ensure our staff and our patients are protected," she said. "Staff must stay home if they are ill, even if their symptoms are mild. We have a duty to protect our patients, our staff and our community."
On Wednesday, Manitoba recorded 24 additional cases of COVID-19, bringing the total to 127. Four people were hospitalized with the virus, including three in intensive care. There has been one death connected to the disease.
On Tuesday, officials reported that an emergency room employee at Selkirk Regional Health Centre, who had exhibited symptoms at work, had tested positive.
Roussin said officials are investigating how Winnipeg hospital staff became infected with the coronavirus. He did not say how many Manitoba health workers have tested positive, nor could he say how many health workers are self-isolating.
However Siragusa said the exposures to the virus have had "a significant impact" on the operations of the two city hospitals.
"We are working with both sites to ensure that they will be able to be staffed appropriately," she said.
The Manitoba Nurses Union said it is aware of a Winnipeg ER nurse who has tested positive and is resting at home. The nurse had not travelled recently, and it's likely she was exposed at work, the union said.
The nurses union said two staff members at Grace Hospital have been confirmed positive, and more than 14 ER staff — several of whom are nurses — are self-isolating at the hospital.
One Grace employee said three workers at the hospital have tested positive.
"Staff are scared they’re going to get exposed, and it’s already happening," said the worker, who asked not to be identified. "It’s pretty rough for people."
"We must ensure that we are taking every possible measure to ensure our staff and our patients are protected. Staff must stay home if they are ill, even if their symptoms are mild. We have a duty to protect our patients, our staff and our community." – Lanette Siragusa, chief of nursing at Shared Health
The Manitoba Association of Health Care Professionals said Wednesday that one of its members at Grace Hospital has tested positive for COVID-19, while nine other members at St. Boniface Hospital were self-isolating after another hospital employee tested positive.
Bob Moroz, president of the MAHCP, which represents a variety of health professionals who are neither doctors nor nurses, said the Grace member who tested positive did not work in one particular area, but had the run of the hospital.
"This type of worker does move about the hospital, through the emergency room, through the wards, and various other places where they're needed," he said.
Moroz said the member believes they contracted the virus through contact with patients.
Roussin said while some jurisdictions waited for evidence of community transmission before implementing social-distancing measures, Manitoba was ahead of the game, implementing the measures weeks ago.
The latest updates on the novel coronavirus and COVID-19.
Meanwhile, Moroz said it took days for the MAHCP member at Grace Hospital to obtain a test for the coronavirus. He said the worker developed symptoms while off work and did not go to work after feeling ill.
Moroz has a gripe with hospital managers who are "not making it easy" for employees to stay home if they're sick.
Workers who have used up their sick leave are told if they stay home, they won't be paid, he said.
"They're disincentivizing their own employees in health care from staying home when they're feeling sick," he said, adding that this is contrary to the message that public-health officers have been sending employers.
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.
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.
Health Minister Cameron Friesen has issued a directive to fast-track the licensing of former nurses who wish to return to work.
He said Wednesday that nurses who have practised within the past five years would be eligible to have their licensing fees with the College of Registered Nurses of Manitoba waived.
Friesen announced the "all hands on deck" approach as Manitoba started to see community transmission of the coronavirus, with 127 people testing positive as of Wednesday, including staff at hospitals in Winnipeg and Selkirk.
Friesen issued an order under the Regulated Health Professions Act to enable the registrar of the College of Registered Nurses of Manitoba to waive or modify registration requirements for former registered nurses apply for temporary registration during the pandemic on an expedited basis.
The order will remain in place until there is no longer a serious and immediate threat to public health, Friesen said.
The call out to nurses to return to their profession wasn't done in response to news of health-care workers at hospitals in Selkirk and Winnipeg testing positive and staff having to self-isolate, said Premier Brian Pallister. It's part of plans that have been in place to deal with the disease as the number of infections increase, he said.
"This pandemic will undoubtedly place extra strain on our health-care system," Pallister said, adding he's certain nurses will answer the call and return to work.
"I know that nursing is a caring profession and nurses are caring people," he said.
A person who has since tested positive for the coronavirus spent several hours at Club Regent Casino the day before the government shut it down, but health officials say the risk to the public is low.
Earlier this week, the government made mention of the casino on its COVID-19 website under the heading, "Flights and events with confirmed cases."
No other information was provided except for the date.
Manitoba Liquor and Lotteries posted a message on its website Tuesday saying that an individual who had tested positive for COVID-19 visited the casino between 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. on March 16. The government closed casinos due to the virus the next day.
"If you attended Club Regent Casino during this time and have COVID-19 related symptoms, please self-isolate and contact Health Links… for further advice on the need for testing,” the Crown corporation said.
MLL said it is working to identify casino employees who worked during that period and who may have had close contact with the infected individual.
Asked about the case on Wednesday, Dr. Brent Roussin, the province’s chief public health officer, said his staff became aware of the contact with the casino only in the past couple of days.
Information was posted to the government’s website right away, he said.
“The actual risk to anyone at the Club Regent at that time was low,” he said.