In the wake of COVID-19, what can Manitobans expect in the next few weeks?

By | March 18, 2020

With heightened concern in Manitoba over the novel coronavirus pandemic, a public health expert says things will get worse before they get better.

“The most likely scenario is that Manitoba will see even more cases,” said Dr. Steven Hoffman, a professor of global health, law and political science at York University.

“I think we’re going to increasingly hear messages from governments at  the federal, provincial and local levels constraining the amount of physical contact we have with other people.”

Although scientists aren’t 100 per cent certain, it’s believed every case of COVID-19 results in 2½ more cases, in the absence of social distancing interventions.

Manitoba made an unprecedented decision last week to cancel classes at public schools in Manitoba for a week before and after the upcoming spring break, meaning students will be out from Monday, March 23, until April 13 in an effort to prevent the spread of novel coronavirus. 

“That will dampen that kind of spread and hopefully we’ll be able to flatten the curve, as people have been saying, making sure we don’t overwhelm our (health care) system,” Hoffman said.

People walk through Pearson International Airport in Toronto on Monday, March 16, 2020. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

If Manitoba is lucky, the cases will continue to be associated with travel, said Kelly Macdonald, the head of the section of infectious disease in the department of internal medicine for the University of Manitoba and the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority.

Macdonald said the province is working hard to prevent person-to-person spread.

“When you see even a single case of community transmission where you can’t identify that the person brought the case into the community, that means that might be the tip of the iceberg,” she said.

“Right there that could be maybe 100 cases that you don’t know about. So we will be continuing to track very, very carefully every single case that we see and identify where it came from and and any associations with it.”

Hoffman believes Manitoba will almost certainly experience community transmission, as other provinces have.

(CBC News)

“I don’t think there’s a jurisdiction in the world that’s been able to contain this outbreak. Basically every jurisdiction where it has arrived we’ve then subsequently seen community transmission, as far as I know,” he said.

Macdonald hopes the province will be able to suppress those cases.

More places to get tested, more flu cases

The province announced Monday it’s opening two more COVID-19 screening centres in Flin Flon and The Pas. Winnipeg has four testing centres and Thompson has one.

Macdonald says the province needs to continue working aggressively to open more places to get tested and treat infected people.

She says protocols should be put in place in rural and northern areas so people who are not ill or are only experiencing moderate symptoms can stay where they are without unnecessary travel.

“That would be an increased risk to transmission of the disease,” Macdonald says. “We need to act now.”

Macdonald says the ongoing influenza season is making it more difficult for health care providers to fight COVID-19, and it proves people aren’t washing their hands enough or practising social distancing as public health officials are recommending.

“Our hospitals are quite full of influenza cases, and this means we’re still getting community transmission of influenza, which is concerning,” Macdonald said.

“We’d like to see that drop down. That would free up hospital beds and would indicate that people are taking the kind of precautions that would also reduce the spread of coronavirus.”

Shorter wait times

Not all the news is bad, though. Macdonald believes sick people won’t have to wait quite as long when calling the province’s telephone health information line.

“We have a lot of worried well people calling Health Links,” Macdonald said, especially following news of the first suspected cases last week.

Dr. Kelly Macdonald says she thinks Health Links wait times will go down as people learn more about the novel coronavirus. (Shutterstock)

As of Monday, the wait time to call Health Links — (204) 788-8200 or toll-free at 1-888-315-9257 — was almost two hours. Macdonald thinks that could drop as the province gets better at informing the public and people’s anxieties start to ease.

“I think we have more information getting out there so that people who are getting information through other avenues are less likely to call Health Links just for reassurance,” she said.

Macdonald added Health Links is adding more staff to field calls, and an online tool, which has been running since Monday evening, is another option for people who have been calling.

Over the next couple of weeks, more than just the health care system will see changes.

‘Ghost malls, ghost stores’

As more Canadians are staying home and practising social distancing, the economy is taking a hit.

University of Manitoba marketing professor Fang Wan says business owners in Manitoba and abroad will have to adapt or die.

“You look at all the cities, we call them ghost towns, ghost malls, ghost stores. Nobody’s going to restaurants,” she told CBC News.

A man walks through an empty mall in British Columbia, glancing at one shop with its doors closed. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Wan says retail stores and restaurants that haven’t taken the steps to open online shops, offer delivery options or allow customers to avoid too much person-to-person contact should do so immediately.

“Those people who don’t have an online presence, who don’t have an online system, who don’t have these communication mechanisms with customers, they will have zero business,” she said.

In terms of empty shelves of canned goods and toilet paper, Wan says prices could go up because of the demand, but that could hurt businesses after the pandemic slows down.

“Yes, the demand is more than the supply, and beefing up the price is a commerce and business principle, but that is under the test of moral judgment and morality when a crisis like this arises,” she said.

She thinks Manitoba is well situated because a lot of the items sold in the province are sourced locally. Items that come from big cities that have been hit hard by the pandemic could be much more difficult to access in the next couple of weeks.

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