After reporting Manitoba's largest same-day surge in coronavirus cases and a troubling backlog in lab testing Wednesday, the chief provincial health officer had better news to share on Thursday.
Dr. Brent Roussin reported just one new COVID-19 case — a man in his 20s who lives in Winnipeg, and appears to have a link to a previously announced positive case —bringing the province's COVID-19 case count to 36.
Roussin also announced the largest single-day increase in test results — 734 — after being limited to performing 200 to 250 tests a day because of a global shortage of the reagent used in testing. The Cadham Provincial Lab, which is now able to make its own reagent, has performed more than 5,606 tests so far. Roussin would not say how many samples remain backlogged but promised "there will not be a backlog by end of week."
With the lab able to make its own testing material and increase its capacity, testing for COVID-19 will now be expanded, Roussin said. As a result, it's expected health-care workers will discover many more positive cases, but Roussin would not commit to any new measures such as extending school closures or further restricting the size of public gatherings.
"We'll be moving forward with that in the near future," he said of reducing crowd size limits in Manitoba, currently set at 50. Roussin is pacing the restrictions he imposes, knowing they will be in place for an extended period of time, and has said several times that as soon as there is evidence of sustained community transmission, they'd be put in place. He said he's not getting any pushback from the province about tightening restrictions.
"There's a lot of things to consider when you make changes like this," said Roussin. The same goes for extending school closures past April 10, which appears likely. "In a couple of weeks this is not going to be over," he said. "We're looking at what steps we're going to take… We're trying to get a better picture of when we can make announcements."
The only new measures the provincial health officer announced Thursday concerned testing.
"We are expanding our testing criteria to include the groups of people at risk of contracting or spreading COVID-19 and are showing respiratory symptoms," Roussin said. "These would include all symptomatic health-care providers, individuals who live or work in remote or isolated communities, including First Nations and people who live or work in a group setting," including correctional facilities, shelters, long-term care and residential care facilities and work camps, he said.
Testing for COVID-19 is the only way to track the spread of the disease, and so far the most at-risk have been prioritized: long-term care residents, ICU patients, those who've been in contact with a positive case, and international travellers returning with respiratory symptoms.
"Testing is important but what's most important is the overall strategy," he said. Tracing the contacts of those who've tested positive and implementing physical-distancing measures like closing schools and limiting public gatherings to 50 are going to have a major effect on reducing the spread of infection, said Roussin. "Testing won't get us out of this."
Those who've been waiting several days in self-isolation for negative test results won't have to wait much longer, Shared Health chief nursing officer Lanette Siragusa said. Starting Friday, the private Dynacare lab company will be helping regional health authorities to contact those with negative test results.
"It certainly will be faster than it has in the past," said Siragusa.
Siragusa also addressed concerns about the rationing of masks at health-care facilities. The provincial government is safeguarding several months' worth of personal protective equipment, she said. They're not rationing but "managing inventory" after reports of theft and hoarding before Manitoba had its first COVID-19 case, she said.
Health Minister Cameron Friesen introduced an online form Wednesday for companies to register to provide goods and services needed to respond to COVID-19 — including masks and hand sanitizer.
"We're not out of supplies, we're doing this out of an abundance of caution," he said Wednesday. The plan is to make it quicker and easier to procure supplies and services as infection rates rise, he said.
Carol Sanders’ reporting on newcomers to Canada has made international headlines, earned national recognition but most importantly it’s shared the local stories of the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home.
Updated on Thursday, March 26, 2020 at 6:48 PM CDT: Adds daily tests chart