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Reduced COVID-19 numbers, but Manitoba health officials say fight continues

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Dr. Brent Roussin, Manitoba chief public health officer, speaks during the province's latest COVID-19 update at the Manitoba legislature in Winnipeg Monday, March 30, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods

Dr. Brent Roussin, Manitoba chief public health officer, speaks during the province's latest COVID-19 update at the Manitoba legislature in Winnipeg Monday, March 30, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods

WINNIPEG - Manitoba reached a milestone Friday in its battle with COVID-19.

For the first time, the number of people who have recovered from the illness surpassed the number of active cases 132-113. There were no new infections and 11 more people had recovered than the previous day. The number of patients hospitalized remained steady at eight.

"The recent numbers in Manitoba are showing that we were never helpless against this virus," said Dr. Brent Roussin, chief public health officer.

"We should be cautiously optimistic to see the numbers of this last week, (but) it is too soon for us to let up on our efforts to continue to interrupt the spread of this virus."

Double-digit temperatures are arriving in southern Manitoba after a cool early spring, but Roussin cautioned against easing up on social distancing. He pointed to reports of people meeting with neighbours or friends on their driveways.

"It's best not to invite neighbours over to your place. We want to ensure the ability to keep that physical distancing at this time."

Roussin warned the battle against the virus will continue for some time. On Thursday, he instituted new travel restrictions, including a ban on most non-essential travel to northern Manitoba to protect remote communities.

The government, faced with an estimated $1 billion in costs stemming from the pandemic, wants to cut hours for some public servants or lay them off temporarily. The government has asked the Manitoba Government and General Employees' Union to help lobby the federal government to expand job-sharing programs and employment insurance options, already available to the private sector, to provincial civil servants.

The union wrote to Premier Brian Pallister on Friday looking for details.

"We cannot engage with our members about significant workforce reduction proposals without knowing which members we would be approaching, what the impact would be, and for how long it might be felt," union president Michelle Gawronsky wrote.

"It is impossible for us to proceed on these requests."

Reg Helwer, minister responsible for the civil service, said it was too early to say which workers would be asked to accept cuts.

"That's something we're negotiating right now," he said.

The province has also warned municipalities to keep their budgets in check.

In a letter to mayors obtained by the NDP Opposition, Municipal Relations Minister Rochelle Squires mentioned steps the province is taking, including the workforce reductions.

"I am strongly urging you to look to examples being set and continue to deliver the best value for money for your ratepayers by taking new measures to manage your budgets," the letter states.

NDP Leader Wab Kinew said it appears the province is urging mayors to cut jobs and salaries.

"The provincial plan to cut wages is bad enough ... and now ... the province is telling municipalities to move in the same direction," Kinew said.

"And so that big hit to jobs and to incomes and to the spinoff effects in the economy is going to be way worse."

Squires said the province is not cutting funding to municipalities because of the pandemic. It just wants them to keep their budgets on track as they deal with deferred property taxes, increased emergency expenses and other issues, she said.

"We are looking to municipalities to work with the budgets that they have," Squires said.

"We're asking them to look at what they can do to live within their means and to come up with solutions."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 17, 2020

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