Province sends mixed signals on virus testing

The provincial government’s stated policy on who is allowed to get a COVID-19 test continues to be a confusing mess.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 27/05/2020 (1033 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The provincial government’s stated policy on who is allowed to get a COVID-19 test continues to be a confusing mess.

Last week, the province started testing people who had no symptoms on a limited basis. The government didn’t announce it publicly and the details of the program remain vague.

Officially, only people who have symptoms are allowed to get a test at one of the province’s testing stations. But if an asymptomatic person shows up for a test, they won’t be turned away, said Dr. Brent Roussin, the province’s chief public health officer.

“We’re certainly saying anyone with symptoms, even if mild, even if you’re not sure, (go) for testing,” Roussin said Wednesday, when asked to clarify who is eligible. “It’s not really our advice for people that aren’t showing any symptoms to show up to be tested.”

But there’s a caveat: “We’re not planning on turning people away, but it certainly isn’t our advice to do widespread, indiscriminate asymptomatic testing,” he said.

It’s a confusing message; if you don’t have symptoms, don’t show up for a test. But if you do, we’ll test you anyway.

Premier Brian Pallister muddied the water even further on Wednesday.

“If you exhibit symptoms, please go and get tested,” he said. “We’ve broadened the testing to allow you to go even if you don’t exhibit symptoms.”

That’s not what the provincial government’s website says.

“Individuals who are NOT experiencing signs/symptoms of COVID-19 will NOT be tested,” it says in bold font.

There’s not much wiggle room there. How is the public supposed to interpret these contradictory statements?

The province has massive amounts of surplus testing capacity. It has the lab resources to do from 1,000 to 2,000 tests a day, but has only performed a daily average of about 500 to 600 in recent weeks. That extra capacity has allowed the province to start doing limited asymptomatic testing; but it hasn’t done much. As of early this week, the province had only conducted about 250 tests on people who had no symptoms, said Roussin.

The fear is that if the province opens up sites to anyone who wants a test — whether they have symptoms or not (which Ontario is doing) — they might get swamped with requests.

“It’s hard to know how many people would take advantage of that,” said Roussin. “We don’t want to overrun sites with asymptomatic people going there, which could adversely affect the chances of a symptomatic person being tested.”

It’s a valid concern, but it doesn’t help Manitobans who deserve a clear answer to a simple question: if someone wants a test, can they get one even if they’re not showing symptoms?

Pallister says yes, Roussin says yes (but he doesn’t recommend it), and the government website says no.

Asymptomatic testing in jurisdictions with excess capacity is seen by experts as a useful surveillance tool to help identify infections that may otherwise go undetected. Alberta has been testing asymptomatic people for some time and has found dozens of infections that public health officials were able to contain, including close contacts.

As Manitoba moves into Phase 2 of reopening its economy, increased testing will become even more important to monitor where the virus is lurking.

Manitoba has the capacity to ramp up asymptomatic testing. The problem is that the government appears to be unsure how to do it. Instead of a clear policy, officials are giving the public a muddled message (much like they’ve done with masks). They could gauge demand by having a seven-day trial period in which anyone who wants a test, can get it.

The good news is the province performed 1,145 COVID-19 tests on Tuesday. It’s one of the highest daily counts since testing began. Roussin attributes that, in part, to more asymptomatic testing. If the province continues to test at that level, it will have good surveillance heading into next week.

If it doesn’t, Manitoba will not be monitoring as effectively as it could.

Tom Brodbeck

Tom Brodbeck

Tom has been covering Manitoba politics since the early 1990s and joined the Winnipeg Free Press news team in 2019.

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