Once swamped by demand, Manitoba COVID-19 testing sites are now underutilized, officials say
Excess capacity leads to renewed calls for targeted testing in personal care homes, schools
Weeks after Manitobans with COVID-19 symptoms complained of seven-hour waits for a swab test, Manitoba suddenly finds itself with excess testing capacity.
This has led to renewed calls for targeted testing in personal care homes, schools and other settings where people continue to congregate indoors.
In September and into October, heavy demands for COVID-19 tests forced the province to expand hours at some sites, open new testing centres and create an appointment system for testing.
Swabbing capacity now meets the demand. On Wednesday, Premier Brian Pallister declared there are no longer any waits to get COVID-19 tests in Manitoba.
"Just this past weekend, not one testing site in the province got within half of the capacity we've created," Premier Brian Pallister said Wednesday during question period in the legislative chamber.
- New site at capacity before opening: Observations from a day at Winnipeg's 5 COVID-19 testing locations
Dr. Brent Roussin, Manitoba's chief provincial public health officer, confirmed testing capacity now meets the demand.
"Essentially, all of our testing specimen-collection sites are working under capacity," he said.
This is reflected in the number of laboratory tests completed by the province.
Daily test completions peaked in Manitoba on Nov. 13, when the average test count over seven days was 3,442 per day.
The seven-day average test count is now 2,495.
Care home asks for targeted testing
This means the province is now completing almost 1,000 fewer tests per day — and 7,000 fewer over a week.
That's enough capacity to test many of the province's care-home residents and workers once a week for COVID-19, said Sam Baardman, whose 95-year-old mother-in-law lives in the Simkin Centre, one of the Winnipeg personal care homes afflicted with a coronavirus outbreak.
In November, the Simkin Centre asked the province to engage in targeted testing within the care home. The request was denied.
"This has been requested and suggested by our site a number of times and currently is not supported by the government/Shared Health," Simkin Centre CEO Laurie Cerqueti told families of residents in a letter on Nov. 20.
"We were told today that the main reason for this is a lack of lab capacity."
Roussin said Thursday lab-testing capacity must be reserved for symptomatic patients.
"None of this capacity is infinite," he said, adding there are still strains on laboratory operations, such as the potential shortage of reagents needed to complete the polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, tests that identify the presence of COVID-19 in a sample.
"We want to use our finite resources to the best we can," Roussin said.
Susan Israel, Sam Baardman's partner, said she doesn't understand why the province would not devote lab capacity to seniors living in personal care homes.
"These are the people that are dying at great rates compared to any other group," said Israel, whose mother has lived in the Simkin Centre for six years.
Manitoba's Official Opposition, meanwhile, called for the province to engage in targeted rapid testing in Manitoba schools.
NDP Leader Wab Kinew said the provincial decision to extend the holiday school break by two weeks demonstrates schools may not be as safe as the province maintains.
Pallister rejected that call, noting rapid tests are less reliable. Roussin again insisted there is little evidence COVID-19 is transmitted in schools.
With files from Bryce Hoye