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Public health officials are recommending people keep their distance from one another as the first positive tests for coronavirus in Manitoba were confirmed Thursday.
While social distancing may be simple way to help minimize the virus spread, avoiding public spaces is easier said than done for some residents.
Jerson Salas relies on Winnipeg Transit; he doesn’t have any other way to get to and from his construction and casino jobs. Waiting for a No. 15 bus downtown and wearing a moustache-print medical mask after a medical appointment, Salas said he’s keeping to himself amid virus fears.
"I stayed home for a couple days and don't really go out as much — I just go pretty much to where I need to work and then go back home," he said.
Manitoba’s chief public health officer, Dr. Brent Roussin, announced the province’s first presumptive COVID-19 case — a 40-year-old Winnipeg woman who recently travelled to the Philippines — Thursday morning.
Two additional positive test results — two men in their 30s believed to have contracted the virus while travelling — were announced by the province in a late-afternoon statement. There was no information provided on whether those cases were connected.
"All Manitobans have a role in protecting ourselves and our communities," Roussin said, adding residents should start applying "social distancing" strategies.
Social distancing involves minimizing prolonged, close contact with others in public, avoiding handshakes and other touch-centric greetings, disinfecting surfaces, avoiding large gatherings and thinking carefully about travel plans.
Manitoba Health defines prolonged, close contact as more than 10 minutes within two metres of other people — conditions that are difficult to avoid on public transit.
"If you're forced to, and you have to go somewhere, then you really don't have a choice, do you?" Salas said.
Some people waiting in bus shelters downtown were taking some basic precautions, but most aren’t ready to panic yet.
"For the most part, I feel like people aren't really coughing in my face, so it's fine," said student Tanya Thind, who was waiting for a bus outside the University of Winnipeg.
Thind said she has to go to school and can’t avoid crowded spaces, but added that she isn’t more worried about COVID-19 than about any other viruses just yet.
"I have a whole bunch of hand sanitizer with me all the time, and I try not to touch too many things on the bus," she said.
But 90-year-old Susan Burns, who just returned from a family trip to California, is concerned about being out in public.
"I do believe it really is frightening," she said, waiting at a bus shelter. "It's worse for children and old people, and I'm old people."
(Based on available evidence, children do not appear to be at higher risk for COVID-19 than adults. While some children and infants have been sick with COVID-19, adults make up most of the known cases to date.)
Burns was out and about Thursday for the first time since returning from the U.S. last weekend. She’s being cautious by wearing gloves in public spaces, washing and sanitizing her hands often and practising good cough hygiene.
"I'm not too worried about Winnipeg, but like I said, I wear my gloves and I'm not going to touch anything until I get home now," she said.
For its part, Winnipeg Transit hasn’t taken any precautionary measures yet, but that could change as the city looks to the province for guidance on best practices.
Winnipeg Fire and Paramedic Service assistant chief of emergency management Jason Shaw told a press conference Thursday the city is studying its operations to decide how to respond to provincial social distancing policies.
"That may include some of the things that have been mentioned already in terms of additional cleaning inside city properties," Shaw said.
The city plans to provide further updates as information becomes available.
Julia-Simone Rutgers is a general-assignment reporter.
Updated on Friday, March 13, 2020 at 12:33 PM CDT: Adds information about children and coronavirus.
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