Manitoba opens up COVID-19 testing to include 'quite vast' list of essential services workers

Manitoba has opened up its testing criteria to include a wide swath of Manitobans, including all workers or volunteers in workplaces deemed "essential services," as long as they have symptoms.

Dr. Brent Roussin says testing will now also include those living with health-care workers, first responders

Premier Brian Pallister, seen here in a March 26 photo, said Thursday that reopening Manitoba's economy is 'vital' and expanding COVID-19 testing is part of that process. (John Woods/The Canadian Press)

Manitoba has opened up its COVID-19 testing criteria to include a wide swath of Manitobans, including all workers or volunteers in workplaces deemed "essential services" who are showing symptoms of the illness.

Dwindling test numbers over the past week prompted the province to expand its testing criteria, said Manitoba chief public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin on Thursday.

The province's Cadham Provincial Lab completed 449 tests on Wednesday, and less than 400 each day on Monday and Tuesday. At its peak, the lab was able to complete 1,300 tests in a single day on April 1.

"There is no backlog at the lab, so the low numbers all reflect the demand [and] amount of people showing up for testing," Roussin said on Thursday. "I think that that's our biggest indicator that we want to expand testing."

Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister said Thursday the province is looking at the need for more widespread testing for COVID-19 before eventually reopening the provincial economy.

Reopening Manitoba's economy is "vital," Pallister told reporters during a briefing on updated COVID-19 measures.

"We know that through increased testing there is an increased possibility that we'll be able to build confidence — not only in the general public, but in the health officials whose guidance we must listen to — that we are not opening the door to a resurgence in COVID infections in our province," he said.

WATCH | Manitoba premier responds to prime minister's comments on need for widespread testing:

Premier Brian Pallister responds to Prime Minister's statement increased testing needed before economy can reopen

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Manitoba Premier Brian responded to a reporter's question during a Thursday news briefing on COVID-19 measures in the province. 1:00

It's been more than a month since the first cases of COVID-19 were confirmed in Manitoba. The province has now seen 250 confirmed or probable cases of the disease caused by the new coronavirus. Five people in the province who have contracted it have died, while 121 had recovered as of Thursday.

Previously, Manitoba has only offered testing to symptomatic people in certain higher-risk categories, including health-care workers, people who have travelled recently, and known contacts of those with COVID-19. People in remote communities, long-term care centres, jails and shelters are also already being tested, as are patients hospitalized for respiratory symptoms.

The expansion announced Thursday includes a "quite vast" category of workers and volunteers, Roussin said.

Workplaces that have been deemed essential range from retail outlets like pet stores, gas stations and office supply providers to construction and utilities companies, financial companies and dealerships, and businesses selling food or household items, as well as those involved in food production and safety. The full schedule of businesses deemed essential can be found online.

The testing expansion will also include any symptomatic person who lives with a health-care worker, first responder or someone who works in a "congregate setting," such as correctional facilities, shelters and long-term care homes.

"The next next step might be to just open it to all symptomatic individuals," Roussin said Thursday. "It really depends on what our numbers tell us."

Widespread testing crucial: Trudeau

On Wednesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said widespread testing and contact tracing will be crucial in reopening the larger Canadian economy.

"It's a fair point, and I think the prime minister makes a good point," Pallister said Thursday, when asked to respond to Trudeau's remarks. "[Alberta] Premier [Jason] Kenney has also looked at adding to the testing capabilities in the province of Alberta."

"To this point in time, of course … we've been focused, naturally, on doing all the preventative testing and diagnosis that we can, to fuel our capacity to assist those who are suffering from COVID directly. And we've been, I think, quite successful in doing so," Pallister said.

"To be frank, though, the opening of our economy is vital, and so this is an issue of importance and discussion that we're undertaking right now."

Pallister addressed reporters at news conference called Thursday to announce the official launch of a previously announced online therapy program to support Manitobans during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The AbilitiCBT program is a virtual therapy program offering digital cognitive behavioural therapy for free to Manitobans.

The province announced the program would be coming nearly three weeks ago. More than 800 people have pre-registered for the program, Pallister said, including nearly 600 people who are already getting help.

The province hired Morneau Shepell, a private Canadian tech and human resources consulting company, to create the program.

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The online therapy tool is guided by professional therapists, the province said.

It addresses mild to moderate anxiety symptoms related to some of the challenges brought on by the pandemic, ranging from uncertainty and stress management to physical isolation and information overload.

It's available to all Manitobans 16 or older, and you don't need a doctor's referral to get in. People who want to participate can register online, and then they'll be asked to download an app and complete a questionnaire.

After that, a therapist will reach out within three days for an initial assessment over the phone, the province said.

From there, people complete 10 modules on the app, with monitoring and scheduled check-ins from the therapist.

Updates on other programs

Pallister also gave updates on the status of a handful of other previously announced initiatives to help tackle COVID-19 in the province.

Close to 50 retired nurses are involved in a program to bring retired nurses back to work, he said.

More than 6,300 people have signed up to help other Manitobans through the Help Next Door MB online tool, Pallister said. The province partnered with Winnipeg-based North Forge Technology Exchange to build the tool, which connects volunteers with people who need help.

The premier added that 88 per cent of child-care requests from Manitoba critical workers have been filled. With 2,543 child-care requests received so far from critical workers, that means 2,228 were matched.