Rapid COVID-19 testing for some Manitoba teachers, school staff starts Monday

People working in five Manitoba school divisions will have access to rapid COVID-19 testing starting Monday, the province announced Thursday morning. It's part of a pilot project initially announced in early December.

Nairn Avenue site will initially be open to staff in 5 school divisions, expanding in February

A Grade 2 teacher walks through her classroom in this file photo. People working in some Manitoba schools will have access to rapid COVID-19 testing starting Monday, the province says. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

People working in five Manitoba school divisions will have access to rapid COVID-19 testing starting Monday, the province announced Thursday morning.

Staff in the Winnipeg, Seven Oaks, River East Transcona, Seine River and Hanover school divisions will be the first eligible for appointments at Manitoba's first rapid testing, or "Fast Pass," site in Winnipeg, a news release said.

The faster turnaround time for rapid tests means schools with COVID-19 cases will be able to identify close contacts sooner, said James Bedford, president of the Manitoba Teachers' Society.

"That means a tremendous amount to a teacher or to anybody working in a school division, because the anxiety level, if you had a potential exposure, must be enormous," Bedford said.

"The key feature is the contact tracing can begin very, very quickly within the school system. And that's been a bit of a problem in the fall."

People working in other school divisions will get access in February, with more details coming later, the province's release said.

The new rapid testing pilot, which was initially announced in early December, will be by appointment only. Eligible staff will need to go to the Nairn Avenue site to get tested. Only those who are showing COVID-19 symptoms, have been identified as a close contact of a school exposure, or live with someone who's symptomatic will be eligible, the province's news release said.

Dr. Jazz Atwal, Manitoba's acting deputy chief public health officer, said part of the reason the test site is in a centralized location, instead of offering testing inside schools, is so symptomatic people aren't going into those buildings to get tested.

The test site is expected to give people positive results the same day they were tested, though there may be longer wait times during the initial pilot phase as testing processes are set, the release said.

"The Fast Pass program will help keep our schools safe by ensuring faster notifications of positive cases and giving our school staff the confidence that they are COVID-19 free when they return to work," Education Minister Cliff Cullen said in the news release.

Anyone working directly with students will be allowed to make an appointment at the new rapid testing site, including teachers, educational support staff, bus drivers, custodians and childcare staff in school-based facilities, the release said.

No surveillance testing

The province's approach to rapid testing means Manitoba isn't yet planning for surveillance testing in schools — looking for the presence of COVID-19 by letting people get tested even if they don't have symptoms — like Ontario has done, Bedford said.

He said provincial officials told him that decision is based on how many tests Manitoba has the capacity to do.

"We would be optimistic that as capacity grows, that's something that could be seriously looked at," he said. "We're seeing the results that are coming out of Ontario speak to the value of that information that comes from the surveillance testing in a school."

James Bedford, president of the Manitoba Teachers' Society, said he thinks it could be useful to test people in schools for COVID-19, even if they don't have symptoms of the illness. (Nelly Gonzalez/CBC)

The Winnipeg site is located at 1066 Nairn Ave. and will be open daily from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., operating alongside a drive-thru test site at that location. There will be a dedicated entrance and appointment stream for people using the Fast Pass service, the release said.

There are also plans in place, following an evaluation period, to potentially open similar rapid test sites in communities across Manitoba, including Winkler and Brandon, it said.

The rapid test sites will be run by Dynacare, a Brampton, Ont.-based medical company, while the tests will be done by people trained through a new program at Red River College, using the lab-based Songbird Hyris bCUBE rapid test.

Bedford said he's hoping educational workers will be prioritized in Manitoba's COVID-19 vaccination queue soon.

"If public schools are going to remain open, if the work that teachers and other educational workers are doing [is] essential, then I think the government needs to look after those adults working in the system. And that means putting them in that vaccination queue," he said.

People getting tested at the Fast Pass site will need to show identification and proof of employer when they show up and will still have to self-isolate while waiting for their results, just like with regular COVID-19 testing. They'll get instructions on what to expect when they get to their appointment, the release said.

Appointment bookings through the province's general appointment phone line open on Sunday. During the first week, there will be between 20 and 40 slots available each day.

That's expected to increase to about 80 by the second week and 160 in the long term, the release said.

The province said the rapid testing pilot will let it learn from the experience and adjust its approach to make sure it best meets public health needs.

Another rapid testing pilot project announced in December is already underway for staff at some personal care homes.

With files from Bartley Kives


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