Manitoba

Don't panic, don't stockpile food, Manitoba health minister urges as coronavirus fears ramp up

Cameron Friesen is asking Manitobans to take basic precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19, such as washing their hands and staying home when they're sick. But he suggests Manitobans have a healthy supply of personal medicine, just in case.

Health Minister Cameron Friesen cautions against federal advice to stock up on week's worth of food, medicine

While the outbreak of novel coronavirus spreads, Manitoba's health minister urges people to take precautions like washing hands and staying home when sick. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Manitobans worried about coronavirus should not panic and don't need to stockpile food, the province's health minister says.

Cameron Friesen is instead asking Manitobans to take basic precautions to prevent the spread of the illness, such as washing their hands and staying home when sick. 

But he does suggest people have a healthy supply of personal medicine, just in case.

"It's never a bad idea to make sure that you've got medications that you need and that you're not running short of basic medications that have been prescribed to you," Friesen said at a news conference Tuesday. 

"Beyond that, I think Manitobans can rely on the fact that their government and Public Health will keep them in the know."

The province has yet to record any confirmed cases of novel coronavirus, which has infected more than 90,000 people worldwide and resulted in the deaths of more than 3,000 people. 

Questioning stockpiling food

There are now 30 cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, confirmed in Canada.

Friesen, however, cautioned against fear-mongering, as the risk of contracting the illness remains low in Manitoba and Canada.

In a conversation with Patty Hajdu, his federal counterpart, Friesen says he took exception to Hajdu's advice last week that Canadians should prepare for possible illness as they would for a natural emergency such as severe weather — by stocking up with about a week's worth of food, medicine and other basic supplies. 

"I just questioned the extent to which, at this point in time, such an instruction would be helpful. I believe she agreed that we need to co-ordinate our statements," he said.

Health ministers want "to be able to speak with one voice, because I think that consistency matters."

WATCH | Ian Froese's report:

Health Minister Cameron Friesen cautions against federal advice to stock up on week's worth of food, medicine. 2:07

He wouldn't speculate whether Manitobans should take measures to prepare for isolation. The Canadian Red Cross, for example, recommends Canadians prepare a small 72-hour emergency kit.

Stores in the province are facing shortages of facial masks and hand sanitizers, Friesen said.

The World Health Organization says the hoarding of masks, gloves and gowns is leaving health-care workers ill-prepared to care for patients — and it's putting lives at risk.

"Without secure supply chains, the risk to health-care workers around the world is real," WHO director-general Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said Tuesday. 

"Industry and governments must act quickly to boost supply, ease export restrictions and put measures in place to stop speculation and hoarding. We can't stop COVID-19 without protecting health workers first."

Since the start of the COVID-19 outbreak, prices for surgical masks have surged, Ghebreyesus said, adding supplies can take months to deliver and are frequently sold to the highest bidder.

The WHO has shipped nearly half a million sets of personal protective equipment to 47 countries, but supplies are rapidly depleting.

So even in places like Manitoba, where there have been no confirmed cases yet of COVID-19, politicians and others are warning against unnecessary stockpiling of medical equipment.

Health Minister Cameron Friesen says the province is prepared for the arrival of coronavirus, if it happens. (Ian Froese/CBC)

    
"Health-care workers at the front line, not only globally but even here in Winnipeg, rely on those for infection control and that's not just for coronavirus — that's for any number of things," said Jason Kindrachuk, the Canada Research Chair in infectious diseases at the University of Manitoba.

"Yes, we can have supplies at home, but those types of things are definitely not going to have a recognizable impact in transmission in the community. In hospitals is where they're needed."

Kindrachuk is leaving Wednesday for two weeks in the Marshall Islands, a sovereign state north of Australia that is associated with the United States, where he will be working with a WHO-funded non-governmental organization to help the country prepare for cases of coronavirus.

"Because it's U.S. territory, there is a direct link back to the mainland, so I think there is some concern that this potentially could be essentially a jumping off point for more cases to be able to come into North America," he said.

Jason Kindrachuk does basic science research on infectious diseases like flu, Zika, Ebola and now coronavirus, looking at how a virus jumps from animals to humans and also treatments/vaccines. He is Canada Research Chair in infectious diseases at the University of Manitoba and also works at the National Microbiology Lab in Winnipeg. He is going to Marshall Islands Mar. 4 with an NGO funded by the World Health Organization to help with emergency preparedness. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

Meanwhile, behind the scenes, Friesen said the Manitoba government is deploying "extraordinary resources" to prepare the province for the arrival of the virus — if it comes.

The health minister is participating in a daily briefing with the chief provincial public health officer and held a conference call with municipal officials on Monday. 

Hospitals have a number of protocols in place, depending on the threat, Friesen said. He wasn't specific about those plans, but said they range from how testing is done to appropriate staffing levels.

"We know there's no instance here in Manitoba, so that planning continues and that planning goes to a granular level of what this would look like in hospitals if we had a certain amount of our population that was affected."

The health minister wouldn't say whether there is a strategy to deal with a quarantine. 

"I won't get too far into detail, but I'd say the planning at this point is significant."

 

About the Author

Ian Froese

Reporter

Ian Froese is a reporter with CBC Manitoba. He has previously worked for newspapers in Brandon and Steinbach. Story idea? Email: ian.froese@cbc.ca.

With files from Karen Pauls