Free rides offered to Winnipeg COVID-19 test sites, but many unaware of service
Advocates for people with low incomes, disabilities say many could benefit from service if they knew about it
Getting to one of the six COVID-19 testing site in Winnipeg can be a daunting task for people without access to a vehicle. Anyone who is sick is told to avoid taking public transportation, and cab fare may be too expensive for many.
For months, the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority has offered a free ride service to help people with "very unique needs" get to a site — but many COVID-19 test patients, as well as advocates for people with disabilities and low-incomes, told CBC News they had never heard of the service.
Scott McFadyen, director of development for Inclusion Winnipeg, says many people with intellectual disabilities face barriers to accessing transportation, and could benefit from a service like the one offered by the WRHA through Health Links.
"We're even aware of one circumstance where a person was advised [by Health Links] to take a taxi to a testing site," McFadyen said.
"People with disabilities, they don't have spare money kicking around these days to sit in a taxi for a number of hours to get tested."
Leah Delahaye waited nearly seven hours at the mobile testing site at Portage Avenue and Erin Street last week. While she waited, she took the bus home and back again. She says she was unaware of the public health advice against taking public transportation when sick.
"I really didn't want to [take the bus]," she said. "I really did consider staying there the whole time, but I mean, it was cold. I wasn't just going to stand there for the whole six-and-a-half hours."
Had she known about the service, she says she would have asked for it.
"There's a lot of young people who don't have access to a car, or even not-young people, that don't have access to a car, and I feel like that would help a lot of people that are having trouble getting to testing sites."
Fewer than 10 rides per day
A spokesperson for the WRHA said the service, which has been available since April, provides rides for an average of 10 people per day, although the contractor that works with the health agency has as many as 15 vehicles available.
The vehicles have shields that separate the driver from the client. The service takes people to one of the city's drive-thru sites, and the patients wait in the vehicle until they get tested.
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"The program has not been promoted through any standalone promotion or advertising specific to the program," the WRHA spokesperson said in an email statement, "but the public has long been directed (on the province's website, for example) to contact Health Links–Info Santé if they require assistance in accessing safe transportation for testing."
The spokesperson couldn't say why fewer than 10 people per day have been using the service.
"That is simply what the demand has been."
Meaghan Erbus, advocacy and impact manager for Winnipeg Harvest, said she thinks the demand for the service is likely greater than the usage suggests.
"I'm sure that there's a criteria and that's probably why it's limited, but I think there's lots of folks that would benefit from that service."
Tests by appointment, in doctor's offices coming
People going to get a COVID-19 test face stigma, Erbus said.
"I think that this [service] would eliminate some of that [stigma]."
The service, which can be booked by phoning Health Links, is limited to "unique circumstances where an individual is truly unable to make their way for testing on their own," according to the WRHA.
These include "lack of financial resources, lack of access to a vehicle, symptoms that would prevent them from taking public transportation, and lack of access to family members or other social supports who could assist them in attending for testing."
On Tuesday, the province announced a number of measures intended to reduce wait times at testing sites and improve access. In the coming weeks, they plan to introduce an appointment system, which will allow people to book a time via phone or online.
They are also in discussions with Doctors Manitoba, which represents physicians in the province, to allow doctors to perform COVID-19 tests in clinics after hours.