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Manitoba chief provincial public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin speaks at a media news conference at the Manitoba Legislative Building in Winnipeg on Thursday, Aug. 13, 2020.

David Lipnowski/The Canadian Press

Manitoba’s chief public health officer says people are losing sight of the fundamentals that previously kept the number of COVID-19 cases low in the province, as a cluster connected to a pork-processing plant grows larger.

The province reported 40 new cases on Friday.

Dr. Brent Roussin said people need to keep their distance from each other, avoid large indoor crowds and stay home when they are sick, because the province cannot only rely on massive restrictions to get the spread of the virus under control.

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“This virus is another year or two at least,” he told a news conference. “So we can’t continually rely on massive shutdowns to get through this.”

Roussin also issued his most stern recommendation yet about masks. He said people should wear masks in indoor public places when they aren’t sure physical distancing can be assured, like running errands or going to retail outlets.

“Let’s put a mask on,” he said.

Roussin added, however, that he is only recommending strongly that students from Grades 5 to 12 wear masks when they return to school come September. The recommendation is part of the provincial government’s back-to-school plan announced earlier this week.

Manitoba spent months with low numbers of new infections and many days without any new cases before the recent increase. Since the beginning of the pandemic, there has only been one day in April with a case count as high as Friday’s.

Roussin said health officials now go through as many as 25 or more close contacts for each person who has tested positive. On average, he said, 14 per cent of close contacts go on to develop COVID-19.

“These are indications we are starting to lose track of our fundamentals,” he said.

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In Brandon, a city west of Winnipeg, there are 90 active cases. Health officials have said many are linked to a cluster related to a person didn’t properly isolate after travelling.

That cluster has affected the city’s Maple Leaf Foods pork-processing plant, where 39 employees have tested positive. Roussin said there is still no indication COVID-19 is being spread within the facility.

The United Food and Commercial Workers union Local 832, which represents nearly 2,000 employees at the plant, called for a halt to production until all staff are tested.

The company, which has argued the workplace is safe and operations will continue, has urged local leaders to call on residents to wear masks and social distance. On Friday, Maple Leaf announced that it has partnered with the City of Brandon to make disposable masks available to everyone in the community.

Roussin said Maple Leaf has taken significant precautions and is requiring many employees to self-isolate.

He added that region-specific restrictions are not off the table, if cases in the area continue to climb.

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“This virus is still here. We are not done with this.”

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