Manitoba’s chief public health officer steadfastly remained tightlipped about the circumstances of the province’s only COVID-19 death — a woman the Free Press has learned had worked at a dental supply company — as the number of confirmed and presumptive cases across the province jumped to 72 over the weekend.

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Manitoba’s chief public health officer steadfastly remained tightlipped about the circumstances of the province’s only COVID-19 death — a woman the Free Press has learned had worked at a dental supply company — as the number of confirmed and presumptive cases across the province jumped to 72 over the weekend.

Dr. Brent Roussin declined to say how the woman had contracted the virus when he announced her death on Friday. Roussin was questioned again about the death on Sunday and refused to divulge information about the case.

The patient, Margaret Sader, worked at Sinclair Dental in Winnipeg, the Free Press has confirmed.

"Thank you for your condolences… Due to privacy concerns as well as the family’s continued wishes for privacy, we will decline to comment further at this time," said Victor Michaud, chief operating officer of Sinclair Dental, in a series of emails Sunday.

Family members did not respond to the Free Press’ requests for comment.

Members of the local dentistry community took to social media to mourn Sader’s death; she was described as "a beautiful kindred spirit" and community "icon" who had an excellent memory for product codes and people’s orders.

Also on Sunday, a provincial spokesman said in a statement: "Public health has publicly disclosed that at the time the now-fatal case was identified, all cases were related to travel or contacts to known or suspected cases.

"Any information that would help the public assess its risk, or direct people to self-isolate or to be tested for COVID-19, has been completed."

The province’s approach drew criticism from a Winnipeg ethics expert, who said in addition to providing as much information as possible about COVID-19 cases that could protect the public, health officials should also tell Manitobans how long social distancing and self-isolating will have to continue to beat back the virus.

Neil McArthur said it’s crucial the province disclose information such as events patients have attended — even if that may override their privacy rights.

"What’s going to be important with this crisis is tracking any movements of individuals who have infected others. That’s the place where privacy will have to be balanced versus the public interest." –Neil McArthur

"The last thing we want is the government to be perceived as hiding anything at this point," said McArthur, director of the Centre for Professional and Applied Ethics at the University of Manitoba.

"What’s going to be important with this crisis is tracking any movements of individuals who have infected others. That’s the place where privacy will have to be balanced versus the public interest."

The number of cases reported in the province increased by 33 over the weekend. On Sunday, two people who tested positive for COVID-19 remained in hospital, with one of them in the intensive care unit. All other patients are in self-isolation in their homes, said Roussin, adding that two of those who had been ill had recovered.

Roussin did not provide a worst-case scenario forecast when asked about whether Manitoba’s future could mirror that projected by Saskatchewan’s provincial health authority. Public health data leaked to the media in that province estimated 9,000 to 15,000 deaths could occur in Saskatchewan.

Roussin said the province will likely be able to provide an estimate in the coming weeks.

The province has escalated social distancing guidelines to veto gatherings of more than 10 people, starting today, after the number of COVID-19 cases identified in Manitoba nearly doubled over the weekend.

Public gatherings are now limited to no more than 10 people at any indoor or outdoor venues — including at weddings, funerals and places of worship.

As of 12:01 a.m. this morning, businesses are required to enforce a minimum separation of one to two metres between patrons while public transit users must be able to maintain that same distance from one another at bus stops.

In addition, a new community testing site has opened in Pine Falls at Powerview School.

"We are not helpless against this virus," Roussin said Sunday. "The social distancing strategies that we’ve had in place for over two week now, that we continue to escalate, are our best ways to interrupt the transmission of this virus because this virus is spread through those droplets and through close contact with other individuals."

The chief public health officer urged Manitobans to stay at home, and if required to leave the premises, maintain a two-metre distance apart from other people.

"The majority of Manitobans are taking this seriously," he said, adding that people can drastically reduce transmission by staying at home.

He also reiterated the importance of handwashing and the province’s recommendations to avoid all non-essential travel, both international and domestic.

The online assessment tool for the virus has been viewed 330,000 times since it was made public on March 17.

In the event the province needs more space for patients due to overwhelmed hospitals, Shared Health spokeswoman Lanette Siragusa said the province is looking at sites that could be turned into pop-up health centres.

"The majority of COVID-19 patients… won’t need to go to the hospital, but they do need a safe place to isolate and get through that 14-day period," Siragusa said, adding the province has plans to roll out a related announcement in the near future.

In the meantime, Manitobans are being asked to stay at home if possible — and if interested, contact the U of M researchers leading a clinical trial to determine whether a common malaria medication can be used to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Manitobans who have tested positive or who live with people who have tested positive, as well as health care workers who have been exposed to patients with confirmed positive infection are eligible to participate. Additional information about the trial, which involves hydroxychloroquine, can be found online (www.covid-19research.ca).

"The university is hoping to get as many Manitobans as possible enrolled in the clinical trial as fast as possible," Roussin said. "If this study is proven successful, it could lead way to treatment options for Manitobans."

maggie.macintosh@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @macintoshmaggie

Maggie Macintosh

Maggie Macintosh
Reporter

Maggie Macintosh reports on education for the Winnipeg Free Press. Funding for the Free Press education reporter comes from the Government of Canada through the Local Journalism Initiative.