Stock up on information, not toilet paper, says Manitoba's chief public health officer

"There's a role for every Manitoban to play in this, from washing their hands … to think twice about going to large gatherings," Dr. Brent Roussin said on Friday.

Hoarding supplies gives a sense of control, but won’t stop virus spread, psychologist says

Shelves that were once full of toilet paper and sanitary wipes had only a few packages of wipes left on Thursday night at Safeway on Corydon Avenue in Winnipeg. (Karen Pauls/CBC)

As stores across Winnipeg are being cleaned out of toilet paper amid a coronavirus pandemic, Manitoba's top doctor says gathering facts — not buying supplies in bulk — is what will help slow the spread of COVID-19. 

"I'm certainly empathetic. Fear is a natural response to things like this. I really encourage Manitobans to get credible information," Dr. Brent Roussin, the province's chief provincial public health officer, told Information Radio host Marcy Markusa Friday morning.

"There's a role for every Manitoban to play in this," he said, which includes things like proper hand-washing, coughing into your sleeve, staying home if you're sick, limiting prolonged close contact, and thinking twice about going to large gatherings.

Registered psychologist Michelle Warren said it makes sense that people are doing things they think will help them prepare for a stressful situation, like stocking up on household items — but it's more important to keep perspective on what you can do that will actually help, and how to stay calm and focused.

"It's OK to be prepared. We humans really like to control things, and so going and buying a lot of toilet paper gives us a sense of control," Warren told CBC's Information Radio Friday morning.

"But I'd also encourage us to kind of lean into this experience and accept what we can't control: the unknown."

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On Thursday, Manitoba Health Minister Cameron Friesen announced the province's first three presumptive cases of the novel coronavirus. A woman in her 40s and two men in their 30s were all likely exposed to the virus during recent travel, Friesen said.

As of late Friday morning, one of those cases had been confirmed, Roussin said at a news conference.

All three cases came back positive for COVID-19 at the Cadham Provincial Lab, but needed to be confirmed at the National Microbiology Lab before being deemed official.

Roussin said he expects the rest of the tests will be confirmed within 24 to 48 hours.

'We're definitely not helpless'

Roussin said it's important to be proactive in taking steps to isolate anyone who may have the virus.

"We expect 100 per cent of our presumptive positives to be confirmed cases, so we were not waiting to act," he said.

"We're definitely not helpless against this virus and there's been a lot of steps [taken] in these last couple of days. We see these large events being cancelled or postponed, so people are making changes.

"If we work together, we can limit the spread of this virus."

Manitoba Health Minister Cameron Friesen announced the province's first presumptive case of COVID-19 alongside Dr. Brent Roussin on Thursday. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

Psychologist Warren said a little bit of fear or anxiety can actually be a helpful tool to stay calm and focused on things that are proven to help mitigate the virus.

"It keeps us alert and helps us remember to take helpful actions, such as washing our hands, and making that more automatic," she said.

She said it's important for adults to talk to children about the virus to see what they know, and to weed out any misinformation.

"They know more than we think," she said. 

"Younger kids may really misunderstand the likelihood that they will become seriously ill or even die.… So [we should be] trying to build that sense of hopefulness and social responsibility — that we're just doing things like hand-washing or staying home if we're sick."

Taking precautions

Roussin said people should still use social distancing measures when they can, like minimizing contact that is longer than 10 minutes, staying two metres away from others and avoiding greetings that involve touching.

He said even if people find themselves unable to practice social distancing — like on a busy transit bus on in a crowded room — they can still help limit the spread of COVID-19 by washing their hands and staying home if they're sick.

A Walmart in Brandon, Man. was completely sold out of toilet paper this week. (Riley Laychuk/CBC)

"We don't want people who are sick on that bus," he said. "Even when we can't take every single precaution, if everyone's taking the precautions they can, we're going to dramatically reduce the impact of this virus."

On Friday afternoon, the province announced it is cancelling classes at Manitoba schools for the weeks before and after the upcoming spring break.

That means students will be out starting March 23, and are scheduled to go back to school on April 13.

The province also announced on Friday it will be holding daily news briefings on COVID-19 in Manitoba until further notice. The briefings will be streamed online.

With files from Sam Samson, Marcy Markusa and Wendy Parker