OTTAWA — Fly into Nova Scotia and you get a unique welcome gift: two COVID-19 rapid tests.

OTTAWA — Fly into Nova Scotia and you get a unique welcome gift: two COVID-19 rapid tests.

While most Manitobans have never seen an actual rapid test kit, certain provinces and U.S. states dish them out like stocking stuffers.

With the holidays around the corner, Winnipeggers have a twinkle in their eyes for an extra layer of protection before gathering around the fireplace. But Manitoba is not in a giving mood, so far restricting rapid tests to businesses, as well as workers who are exempt from vaccine mandates.

Provincial officials warn the tests give a false sense of security, so the public shouldn’t expect them to be part of Christmas festivities.

This week, Ottawa announced it would send a huge shipment of rapid tests to provinces in the coming days.

Epidemiologist Dr. Souradet Shaw said it’s time for Manitoba to come up with a strategy for how to get these tests into public hands.

“We shouldn’t let perfect be the enemy of the good,” the University of Manitoba professor said. “We should deploy the tools we have available, the best we can.”

<p>An Abbott Laboratories Panbio COVID- 19 Rapid Test device is displayed at a pop-up COVID-19 testing site on the Dalhousie University campus in Halifax on Wednesday, Nov. 235 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES/Andrew Vaughan</p>

An Abbott Laboratories Panbio COVID- 19 Rapid Test device is displayed at a pop-up COVID-19 testing site on the Dalhousie University campus in Halifax on Wednesday, Nov. 235 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES/Andrew Vaughan

While lab tests are much more accurate, these 15-minute tests can detect people who have high loads of novel coronavirus, similar to how a pregnancy test doesn’t always detect someone who’s only recently become pregnant.

Experts have characterized rapid tests as an extra layer of protection — a screening tool but not a surefire test, and one that must come alongside vaccination, mask use and proper ventilation.

“Just because they’re not perfect, it shouldn’t be a reason to just not use a tool, especially if it’s already been purchased,” Shaw said.

Take Nova Scotia, where officials at the Halifax and Sydney airports are handing domestic arrivals a plastic bag with two rapid test kits, as part of a voluntary program to try cutting the risk of imported cases. The package suggests people test themselves 48 hours after arriving, and go for a full lab test if the preliminary result is positive.

In Saskatchewan, kits of five rapid tests are available free to the public at libraries and community centres, with that province encouraging people to test asymptomatic family members once or twice a week.

In some American states, rapid tests are easy to find in pharmacies.

The British government allows residents to order a pack of seven rapid tests online each day, saying they can be used to manage risks. Part of the deal is that citizens are asked to report the results online, to help authorities get early signs of regional outbreaks.

For a year now, pupils in countries such as Austria have used routine rapid tests inside school classrooms to control outbreaks.

<p>An Abbott Laboratories Panbio COVID- 19 Rapid Test device is displayed at a pop-up COVID-19 testing site on the Dalhousie University campus in Halifax on Wednesday, Nov. 235 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES/Andrew Vaughan</p><p>Dr. Jazz Atwal, Manitoba deputy chief provincial public health officer, speaks about COVID-19 updates, initiatives and answers media questions during a COVID-19 live-streamed press conference at the Manitoba legislature in Winnipeg Friday, March 5, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES/John Woods</p>

An Abbott Laboratories Panbio COVID- 19 Rapid Test device is displayed at a pop-up COVID-19 testing site on the Dalhousie University campus in Halifax on Wednesday, Nov. 235 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES/Andrew Vaughan

Dr. Jazz Atwal, Manitoba deputy chief provincial public health officer, speaks about COVID-19 updates, initiatives and answers media questions during a COVID-19 live-streamed press conference at the Manitoba legislature in Winnipeg Friday, March 5, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES/John Woods

But Manitoba is doing none of that, instead tasking the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce in September with helping businesses access the tests, and guide them on how best to use them. The province also sends tests to government departments and agencies with front-line staff who opted for routine testing instead of COVID-19 vaccination.

On Wednesday, Dr. Jazz Atwal, deputy chief provincial public health officer, urged Manitobans planning Christmas events to follow public health orders and stick with vaccinated relatives, instead of pining for something to shove up their nasal cavities.

He argued rapid tests aren’t that helpful for people who don’t have symptoms of COVID-19.

“Rapid antigen tests aren’t very useful in that situation; there is a lot of evidence supporting that. We’re trying to utilize tests in the most effective manner,” Atwal said.

In July, before Manitoba stopped collecting the data, the province had used just six per cent of the rapid tests sent from Ottawa.

“The tests (must) be done a certain way for it to be accurate, otherwise people might fall into a false sense of reassurance with a negative test.”

A Harvard University epidemiologist disputed Atwal’s assertions, calling it “entirely bull——” that rapid tests don’t catch people with COVID-19 who lack symptoms.

“For public health, we care about identifying infectious people. The tests do not react to symptoms; they react to virus,” Dr. Michael Mina wrote on Twitter.

“That’s really unfortunate for Manitoba, that the (deputy) head of public health isn’t understanding this.”

<p>Jhorman Henao processes a COVID-19 rapid test at Rimot.io Inc. in Dartmouth, N.S., Tuesday, June 22, 2021. As workers return to office buildings and job sites across the country, some are being offered rapid COVID-19 tests at work. THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES/Riley Smith</p>

Jhorman Henao processes a COVID-19 rapid test at Rimot.io Inc. in Dartmouth, N.S., Tuesday, June 22, 2021. As workers return to office buildings and job sites across the country, some are being offered rapid COVID-19 tests at work. THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES/Riley Smith

The province responded Thursday by citing data that suggests rapid tests have 30 per cent sensitivity for detecting asymptomatic cases of COVID-19, versus 70 per cent sensitivity for symptomatic ones.

It also said data from Manitoba’s own screening of hospital patients awaiting an operation suggest “at least 500 people would have to be screened, to find one asymptomatic case.”

Online, Manitobans are scrambling to find tests on their own, with some ordering from pharmacies in other provinces that mail tests or having relatives abroad send them along with Christmas gifts.

Ottawa may come to the rescue.

“We are very soon going to deliver to provinces and territories a very large amount of rapid tests — much larger than what we’ve seen over the last few months,” federal Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos said Wednesday.

“The demand from provinces and territories has been substantially increased over the last weeks.”

A Manitoba spokesperson confirmed the province was among those seeking more rapid tests.

“Manitoba has a number of higher-risk scenarios to which provincially managed rapid kits are deployed. These are significant enough in number and need that low-risk, low-impact deployment is not warranted nor likely useful, in the big picture.”

<p>DANIEL CRUMP / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Rapid test - negative COVID-19</p>

DANIEL CRUMP / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Rapid test - negative COVID-19

The spokesperson noted outbreak settings and high-risk exposures are particularly useful for rapid tests.

“The province anticipates ongoing, and perhaps increased, use of them in the near future.”

In September, Manitoba became the only province to stop tracking how many rapid test it actually uses, saying it didn’t have to staffing to track this, and that requests for more tests indicate when employers and government agencies have used their stock.

In July, before Manitoba stopped collecting the data, the province had used just six per cent of the rapid tests sent from Ottawa.

With cases on the rise and the omicron variant making its Manitoba debut, Shaw said the province should consider changing course.

“There’s always trade-offs to any intervention, and I’m sure the province’s rationale to be hesitant is prudent, but I think this is exactly why it should be incumbent on the province to develop a strategy to guide its use,” he said.

Ontario issued a 21-page guidance document Thursday on what situations voluntary rapid tests could be used as a screening tool.

Previously, that had warned rapid tests would generate too many false positives that would clog the lines at PCR testing centres.

dylan.robertson@freepress.mb.ca

Dylan Robertson

Dylan Robertson
Parliamentary bureau chief

In Ottawa, Dylan enjoys snooping through freedom-of-information requests and asking politicians: "What about Manitoba?"