Manitoba confirms three presumptive cases of COVID-19

WINNIPEG — Manitoba announced its first presumptive cases of COVID-19 on Thursday, and officials are warning people to stop shaking hands, rethink travel plans and reconsider attending large public events.

Health Minister Cameron Friesen said a woman who recently travelled to the Philippines tested positive for the novel coronavirus through the provincial lab. The test will now be sent to the national microbiology lab in Winnipeg.

The woman, who is in her 40s, self-isolated after returning to Winnipeg and went to a health-care facility wearing a mask a few days later. She continues to be isolated at home, Friesen said, adding that public health officials are connecting with people she may have contacted since her return.

Later Thursday, the province announced two additional cases, both involving men in their 30s from the Winnipeg region. It also appears they were exposed to the virus through travel.

Friesen encouraged people to take precautionary measures, especially those who are over 65, have underlying medical conditions or compromised immune systems. People should frequently wash their hands, avoid handshakes and stay at home if they are sick and experiencing symptoms. 

"While COVID-19 is on the move and rapidly progressing … Manitobans should know that the vast majority of people who contract COVID-19 will experience mild to moderate symptoms and they will recover," Friesen said.

Two Manitoba cabinet ministers were also absent from the legislature Thursday, after attending a Toronto mining conference where an Ontario attendee later tested positive.

The Manitoba government would not confirm whether Indigenous and Northern Affairs Minister Eileen Clarke and Agriculture Minister Blaine Pedersen are self-isolating, citing privacy legislation. But it said all provincial employees who were at the conference have been asked to remove themselves from work.

A fire hall in Winnipeg was also temporarily closed and some firefighters were put in isolation, after they responded to a medical emergency and may have come in contact with a patient with COVID-19.

The World Health Organization declared the outbreak of novel coronavirus disease a pandemic on Wednesday.

Manitoba widened the scope of people being screened and there has been seen a significant increase in testing  — 500 were done on Wednesday. Two dedicated screening centres are opening in Winnipeg.

The Manitoba government announced earlier this week that it's spending about $35 million on personal protective supplies such as gloves, face masks and hand sanitizer for patients and health-care workers.

Manitoba's chief provincial public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin said the system is prepared to rapidly identify and respond to cases.

"Fear and panic will not help against COVID-19 but our preparedness and credible information will," he said. 

Roussin said it's time for people in Manitoba to begin social-distancing strategies — such as avoiding crowded events — to limit chances of being exposed. People should also carefully review any travel plans.

Employers should ensure employees who are ill can stay home without facing unnecessary burdens like doctor's notes, Roussin added. Employers should also consider cancelling non-essential work-related travel and look at whether they can conduct virtual meetings so people are not crowded closely in rooms.

Schools and educational institutions should increase distances between desks, Roussin said. They should reduce large group activities and consider conducting online classes if possible.

"We know many people are anxious and may be worried about this," he said. "We want to reassure Manitobans that the health care system is at the highest level of preparedness for this."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 12, 2020.

— With files from Steve Lambert

Kelly Geraldine Malone, The Canadian Press