Most Manitobans will no longer get PCR COVID-19 tests to confirm rapid test results
Actual number of COVID-19 cases in Manitoba could be 8 to 10 times number reported: Dr. Jazz Atwal
Most Manitobans who screen positive for COVID-19 using a rapid antigen test will no longer be asked to return to receive a PCR test.
Dr. Jazz Atwal, the province's deputy chief public health officer, said the change will begin Wednesday for most Manitobans age five and up who have symptoms.
The shift comes as reported COVID-19 case numbers — which Atwal said are likely a drastic undercount — soar.
The testing change is needed to preserve lab capacity, as the province deals with a backlog of over 6,000 swabs that haven't yet been tested, he said at a Wednesday afternoon news conference.
People who test positive on a rapid test should assume they have the virus, isolate, inform their close contacts and follow all other necessary public health rules, he said, but will not need to return to a testing site to have their results confirmed.
Even if the rapid test produces a negative result, anyone with COVID-19 symptoms is still required to stay home until the symptoms have resolved, Atwal said.
At this time, Manitoba only reports on COVID-19 cases detected or confirmed through PCR tests, meaning there's a skewed picture of just how many people have COVID-19.
Officially, 1,790 new cases were reported in Manitoba on Wednesday, but Atwal estimates that for every positive test result the province records, there are between eight and 10 that haven't been recorded.
"COVID-19 is there, it's out there. There's lots of cases out there and there's lots of cases we don't know about," he said
Scott Alvi is one of the people caught up in the backlog of COVID-19 tests.
He got tested for COVID-19 before Christmas and just received his results on Tuesday — 10 days later.
"It was definitely frustrating because it was … throughout all of Christmas and New Year's," he said.
He thinks the move toward a greater reliance on rapid tests is a "decent fix" by the province to help alleviate the strain on the system, but is worried they may not be done correctly by people at home.
Meanwhile, Ben Stouffer, who waited around 12 days for his COVID-19 test results, said he was disappointed by the change, and worries underreporting of cases will make it harder to hold the province accountable for its response to the pandemic.
Epidemiologist Souradet Shaw acknowledges Manitoba probably had no choice, but says the new testing measures, combined with the abandonment of contact tracing in most cases, "unfortunately results in a lack of situational awareness of Omicron in our population."
"We won't know the true impact of Omicron in Manitoba — and how to describe this impact by person, place and time," Souradet, an assistant professor at the University of Manitoba, wrote in an email.
"This is important, for example, if we want to know who to target for disease prevention, and whether or not some groups of people are experiencing more severe outcomes from this variant.
Exceptions for some Manitobans
Some Manitobans will still receive a PCR (polymerase chain reaction) test — which is more accurate than a rapid test — if they are symptomatic. That includes those who are hospitalized, people who are experiencing homelessness or are under-housed, and those who have travelled outside of Canada in the past 14 days.
Atwal says people who present to testing sites with COVID-19 symptoms will be screened by health-care workers to determine whether they'll receive a PCR test or a rapid test.
"If someone doesn't qualify for a PCR test, which most people won't, they would be given a rapid test to take home and instructions will be given with that as well and what to do if the test is positive," he said.
Earlier on Wednesday, the federal government announced an additional 140 million rapid tests will be delivered to provinces and territories this month.
Atwal says he's not sure how many will be coming to Manitoba.
The leader of Manitoba's Opposition party says the shipment of rapid tests from Ottawa is welcome news.
But Wab Kinew says the province urgently needs to make a plan to distribute them quickly, fairly and as widely as possible.
"Given the backlog for test results, and the new shift to rapid tests, it's also important that the province releases modelling publicly so that Manitobans can make smart decisions and health care workers can prepare for hospitalizations," Kinew said in an emailed statement.
"Both those things will help us keep people safe and protect our health care system."
With files from Ian Froese