Manitoba plans to purchase $35M worth of masks, sanitizer and other gear to protect against COVID-19
Province wants to avoid shortages if disease spreads; nurses union says it wants to see a treatment plan
Manitoba plans to buy $35 million worth of surgical masks, sanitizer, gloves and other protective equipment to distribute to hospitals, personal care homes, clinics and other health-care facilities to combat the spread of COVID-19.
The province is working with the Public Health Agency of Canada to speed up the procurement of protective gear and ensure the price is not inflated by increasing demand, Health Minister Cameron Friesen announced Tuesday.
While Manitoba has no confirmed cases of the disease caused by the new coronavirus, the province is conducting an inventory of all its protective gear and wants to ensure it does not get caught without supplies if COVID-19 cases emerge, Friesen said.
"While it comes with a hefty price tag, we know that first and foremost is the necessity to get this right and plan well," Friesen said.
"But we also know that these are not the types of equipment and resources that will spoil easily, so at a worst-case scenario, we can fold this back into inventory and use it as required."
There were delays in obtaining protective gear during the H1N1 virus epidemic a decade ago, Friesen said. The equipment includes thermometer covers and protective wipes.
Testing kits for COVID-19 are not included in this effort. While the tests are gathered using ordinary nose-and-throat swabs, the actual testing is conducted at a provincial lab and — in the event of a positive test — by staff at the National Microbiology Laboratory on Arlington Street.
The province recommends that anyone who has travelled internationally and is suffering from a respiratory infection get tested for COVID-19.
Manitoba has tested all severely ill patients for the disease and will soon screen all samples taken from patients with respiratory disease symptoms, said Dr. Brent Roussin, Manitoba's chief public health officer.
The federal government will step in to conduct more testing if needed, Friesen said.
No COVID-19 plan in place yet, union says
While equipment purchases are important, the Manitoba Nurses Union said, the province has not provided assurance there will be enough N95 face masks — protective gear capable of stopping airborne virus transmission — for nurses if and when the new coronavirus spreads in Manitoba.
MNU president Darlene Jackson said she has yet to hear how the province plans to ensure Manitoba has enough intensive care unit beds and negative-pressure rooms to deal with a COVID-19 outbreak — and ensure there is enough medical staff available to treat patients with the disease.
"At the end of the day, you need a bed for those patients to go into and you need a nurse at that bedside to care for them. Those are the capacity issues I'm very interested in," Jackson said.
Friesen said the province is trying to determine how to optimize hospital capacity, both in terms of rooms and medical staff. Capacity remains a concern even though flu season is tapering down, he said.
Manitoba is not prepared to ban or even recommend the cancellation of public gatherings, as some jurisdictions have done — at least not yet.
"Social distancing, to some degree, is going to help [combat] the spread of these viruses. Right now, we're not recommending cancelling large gatherings, but it is a thing that we're planning for, if we see this virus being spread," Roussin said.
"But Manitobans should start thinking about things, certainly those that are at risk, those in older age groups or with underlying medical conditions, whether they want to be attending these large gatherings."
Around the world, temporary factory closures, border closures and travel restrictions in place to fight the spread of COVID-19 have led to a slowdown in both the demand and production of goods. This has led to dramatic drops in the value of stocks and fears of a prolonged worldwide recession.
Manitoba Finance Minister Scott Fielding said the province is prepared to handle such a downturn. Financial contingencies are built into the 2020-21 provincial budget he will table tomorrow, he said.
"It's the most emergency-ready budget in Manitoba history. We're prepared," Fielding said Tuesday. "If there is a downturn, we're prepared. We don't think that will have a dramatic impact on our budgets."