There are 30 newly confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Manitoba on Thursday — the second-highest single-day jump since the start of the pandemic — including 18 connected to a cluster in Brandon.
The new cases were announced as more workers at a Brandon pork-processing facility tested positive for the novel coronavirus, prompting the union representing workers at the plant to call for it to shut down.
Chief Provincial Public Health Officer Dr. Brent Roussin wouldn't comment directly on the cases at Maple Leaf Foods, but he said public health officials are working closely with people in the industry due to outbreaks at meat-processing plants in other jursidictions.
Health officials haven't seen evidence of transmission within the plant so far, he said.
"If we see evidence of transmission within a facility, [that] would be concerning to us," Roussin said.
Several meat-processing plants in Canada were hit hard by COVID-19 in the spring, including three facilities in Alberta. More than 1,500 cases of the disease were linked to a Cargill plant in High River, Alta., where more than 940 employees tested positive.
Union announced cases
The cases at the Maple Leaf plant were announced in a memo from the United Food and Commercial Workers union.
In a letter to Health Minister Cameron Friesen that was also shared with the media, the union said it "was very concerned that four confirmed positive cases within five days and more anticipated positive cases is showing a dangerous trend."
At the news conference, Friesen said Manitobans have a right to timely and accurate information, but criticized the union for its letter.
"I didn't see the benefit in this case of this particular letter that was trying to out the employer or to somehow suggest that there were more cases that couldn't be verified," he said.
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Leaders of both the Manitoba NDP and Liberals said they support the union in calling for a temporary shutdown of the Maple Leaf plant until all workers can be tested.
"We heard an assertion that there's no evidence that cases are spreading in that plant, except that more and more employees are falling sick in that plant. So why isn't the government taking much more decisive action?" asked NDP Leader Wab Kinew.
Brandon cluster linked to travel
The cluster in Brandon, a small city about 200 kilometres west of Winnipeg, started with someone who travelled east of Manitoba and did not self-isolate "perfectly" upon their return, Roussin said.
Without going into specific details about the case, he said that self-isolation involves more than simply staying at home — it also requires limiting contact with other people within the household.
"If someone is self-isolating within your home, you can't have close, prolonged contact with them, or essentially you should be self-isolating as well," he said.
He advised people in the city to stay home.
With the 18 new cases announced on Thursday, the total number of cases linked to the cluster in Brandon is 28.
Thursday's announcement of 30 new cases is only surpassed by the 40 new cases announced on April 2.
There are now 118 active cases in Manitoba. The rolling five-day test positivity rate jumped to 0.9 per cent from 0.44 per cent on Wednesday.
Roussin said the new cases serve as a reminder that Manitobans need to stick to "fundamental precautions," such as good hand hygiene, physical distancing and staying home when feeling ill.
"Manitobans didn't panic when we were in a similar spot, and we're not going to panic now," he told a news conference.
Manitoba has seen a growing number of cases since a 13-day streak with no new cases ended on July 14.
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An additional 564 laboratory tests were completed on Wednesday, bringing the total number of tests completed since early February to 95,547.
But Roussin clarified that the number of tests done on Wednesday is an underrepresentation. There was a slight glitch at Brandon's testing facility on Wednesday, he said during Thursday's briefing.
Roussin, later speaking on CBC Radio's Up To Speed, told host Ismaila Alfa he had no information about what the glitch was.
Passengers on a flight from Montreal to Winnipeg on July 29 might have been exposed to the virus, health officials warned on Thursday. Anyone on Air Canada flight AC 8595 in rows 16 to 22 should self-isolate for 14 days and monitor for symptoms.
Calls for more details
The provincial government has also faced calls to disclose more specific information about where new cases occur.
Roussin signalled on Thursday that the province is ready to do that.
"I think there's a lot of appetite from Manitobans," he said. "I really caution Manitobans, though, about how we use that data."
Public health officials faced criticism earlier this week after the province announced a spike in new cases over the long weekend. The new cases were announced over social media without any of the details that are included in COVID-19 bulletins released on weekdays, such as the regions where the cases occurred.
Manitoba ombudsman Jill Perron told CBC News in a statement on Wednesday that the province could release more specific geographic information about where cases occur, as long as it did not pose a risk of identifying individuals.
As of Thursday, active cases were more heavily concentrated in regions outside Winnipeg than in the city.
The Interlake-Eastern Regional Health Authority had 42 cases, Prairie Mountain Health had 34, Southern Health had 27 and the Winnipeg health region had 15.
This phenomenon is something public health has been preparing for over the summer, especially as fall approaches and the possibility of seeing more respiratory symptoms increases, said Roussin while speaking on Up To Speed.
All regions have the ability to ramp up testing if needed, he said.
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