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Dr. Brent Roussin, Manitoba's chief public health officer, speaks at the provincial legislature, in Winnipeg, on March 26, 2020.

JOHN WOODS/The Canadian Press

Manitoba reported the province’s first death related to COVID-19 on Friday and is reducing the size of public gatherings to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.

A Winnipeg woman in her 60s who was in intensive care earlier this week has died, said Dr. Brent Roussin, the province’s chief public health officer.

“It’s a tragic loss. It’s a Manitoban that we lost and our hearts go out to their friends and family,” Roussin said. “But this is our time to act now.

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“To stay home if you can, practice good social distancing, wash your hands … all Manitobans have a role to limit days like this.”

Roussin also reported three additional cases of COVID-19, bringing the total in the province to 39. There was no immediate information on whether the people had travelled or had caught the virus from someone in the community.

Starting Monday, public gatherings are to be capped at 10 people, down from the current 50.

The ban will apply to church services, weddings and other events indoors and out.

It will not apply to health facilities, homeless shelters and retail businesses, although Roussin said stores will be required to ensure customers maintain social distancing of one to two metres.

The idea of forcing non-essential retail outlets to close is on the table, Roussin said, but is not yet being enacted.

“The trigger, typically, for these type of interventions is sustained community-based transmission.”

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While some Manitoba cases have involved people who got the virus from someone else who had travelled – an event that could be considered community transmission – the province has not yet seen a sustained spread in the community, he added.

Schools across Manitoba are in the middle of a three-week shutdown. Roussin has said that could be extended.

The province is also setting up information checkpoints at some airports and interprovincial highway boundary crossings to inform travellers about their obligations to self-isolate for 14 days. Staff will also provide information on how people can get groceries and other supplies while staying at home.

Finance Minister Scott Fielding announced a change to labour regulations that will extend the period in which workers can be temporarily laid off without being formally terminated.

The Manitoba Federation of Labour supported the move, saying it will let workers be recalled more quickly and ensure they maintain their seniority rights.

Also Friday, Premier Brian Pallister announced free mental-health support to people suffering from anxiety due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

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An internet-based cognitive behavioural therapy program will be offered to any Manitoban over the age of 15 for up to one year.

The program is being provided by human-resources firm Morneau Shepell at an estimated cost to the province of $4.5 million.

“We are creating therapy programs … and we’re making it easier than ever for (people) to get connected to professionals who can help,” Health Minister Cameron Friesen said.

Pallister said he has battled with depression, most notably a few years ago when his mother died.

“I faced up to the challenges with depression at various times in my life … and you bottle it up sometimes.”

The premier read from a hand-etched gift his daughter gave him after his mother’s death, with a message about optimism.

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“It’s something that helped me when I needed that help, and that’s what we’re talking about today – something that’s going to help you when you need the help.”

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