A Manitoba business executive who tried getting rapid tests for his unvaccinated employees says the government needs to make it easier to stop the spread of COVID-19.
"It’s very frustrating," said René Maillard, president of the Dauphin Broadcasting Co.
"It makes you wonder, does anybody know what the hell’s going on."
Maillard heard federal officials talking last week about an abundance of rapid tests, only to find hurdles in getting his hands them.
"We thought because of the Omicron variant, it would be good to have some test kits available," he said.
His company runs an AM radio station that covers news and sports. Some of his staff haven’t been immunized, and a vaccine mandate is off the table.
"It’s not a criteria that we want to use, otherwise we wouldn’t be able to hire anybody," Maillard said.
"In the broadcast industry it’s very hard to recruit people, especially in small markets."
Public health officials have encouraged employers to use rapid tests to curtail outbreaks in workplaces that are essential or involve close quarters, both of which might apply to radio stations.
Experts say the tests are a screening tool to detect people with high viral loads — particularly with the more contagious Omicron variant — but not the gold-standard PCR test performed in labs.
Maillard figured the Prairie Mountain Health authority would know where to get some tests; they told him to phone the government’s Materials Distribution Agency or the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce.
But getting either on the phone proved impossible, with both pointing to a phone number for rapid tests that leads to a voicemail inbox that is full.
The government’s general inquiries was useless, Maillard said, as they wouldn’t even provide him with contact information for the health minister’s office (nor did they point out rapid tests are handled by Central Services).
Rapid tests in Manitoba have been prioritized for the public sector in higher-risk settings, as well as for public servants who aren’t vaccinated.
But they’re also available to businesses throughout Manitoba through a project the government runs with the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce.
The chamber solicits interest and promotes the tests, and offers an online order form that goes to the province to fulfill; the chamber doesn’t actually know how many people get tests.
While the chamber’s site includes "instructions to order for non-chamber members," it doesn’t explicitly say that all Manitoba businesses can apply, regardless of location in the province, or membership in a local chamber.
"Based on the volume of the processing we’ve done, it seems to not be an issue that we’ve encountered," said chamber head Loren Remillard.
"People have been accessing it outside Winnipeg; this is the first I’m hearing about it being an issue."
Maillard argues the website isn’t clear and you should be able to reach a human being by phone to ask how the program works.
The Manitoba government did not respond to a Thursday request for comment.
Maillard was further confused by the inability, almost anywhere in Canada, to walk into a pharmacy and buy a pack of rapid tests, which are widely available in the United States.
Some large Canadian drug-store chains offer a boutique $20 to $40 service of having a pharmacist perform a rapid test and sign a paper showing the result, to be used for entering certain countries such as the United States.
Parliamentary bureau chief
In Ottawa, Dylan enjoys snooping through freedom-of-information requests and asking politicians: "What about Manitoba?"