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Manitobans want and need COVID-19 tests, and at the same time they want and need their hips, knees and cataracts fixed. The province is trying to deliver both, Health Minister Cameron Friesen said Thursday as he addressed complaints about long lineups for nasal swabs at COVID-19 testing sites in Winnipeg.

"The same people who want these tests — and we need to get them those tests — also want to make sure they have access to hospitals for their knee and hip and cataract procedures and other procedures they've been waiting for," Friesen said at a COVID-19 media briefing.

He reminded Manitobans that the province was able to quickly ramp up testing capacity in March and April because normal hospital functions and non-urgent surgeries had closed down to prevent the possible spread of the virus in hospitals, and in case there was an influx of COVID-19 hospitalizations.

A line of cars of people waiting to get tested at the Main Street site was running down various residential streets for hours last week. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press files)

A line of cars of people waiting to get tested at the Main Street site was running down various residential streets for hours last week. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press files)

"We were able to redeploy the massive workforce to new things," Friesen said Thursday. Now they're back doing their regular jobs, trying to catch up on the backlog of 7,000 surgeries and procedures since they resumed in late April.

"We are committed to getting back on track," the minister said. "We're moving very rapidly to add screening sites because they're needed."

For instance, a mobile screening unit that was set up Wednesday in Winnipeg, at 1181 Portage Ave., collected 75 swabs on its first day. Other testing sites around the city that had long lines reported they had to turn people away on Thursday.

Testing capacity

As of March 5, 97 tests had been completed for COVID-19 in Manitoba, with none testing positive.

On March 12, the first case of COVID-19 is reported in Manitoba.

By March 14, the province was testing 500 patients a day. All patients in Manitoba's intensive care units, as well as those admitted to a hospital for respiratory illnesses, are tested. Others need to be screened by Health Links or a doctor and referred for testing.

As of March 5, 97 tests had been completed for COVID-19 in Manitoba, with none testing positive.

On March 12, the first case of COVID-19 is reported in Manitoba.

By March 14, the province was testing 500 patients a day. All patients in Manitoba's intensive care units, as well as those admitted to a hospital for respiratory illnesses, are tested. Others need to be screened by Health Links or a doctor and referred for testing.

On March 16, Manitoba Health announced some surgeries would be postponed for patients whose surgeon has determined a procedure can be safely delayed for three months or longer without any significant effects on a patient's health.

On March 21, a drive-thru testing site opens in Winnipeg with four other walk-in test centres in Winnipeg, as well as test centres in Brandon, Thompson, Selkirk, Flin Flon, Steinbach and The Pas.

On April 23, 786 laboratory tests were performed, bringing the total number of tests performed since early February to 22,172.

On April 24, Shared Health chief nursing officer Lanette Siragusa announced that postponed surgeries would resume the following week.

On April 28, testing was made available to any Manitoban who had symptoms. Premier Brian Pallister announces that Manitoba and Dynacare have entered into a partnership that will see up to 2,000 tests a day before the end of summer. With Cadham Provincial Laboratory's capacity at more than 1,000 tests daily, the province said it expected to have testing capacity of more than 3,000 tests a day.

On Sept. 22, 1,703 tests were completed.

On Sept. 30, 1,803 tests were completed. Since February, there have been 186,668. A mobile COVID-19 collection site opens at 1181 Portage Ave. and takes 75 nose swabs on its first day. It has the capacity to collect 80 samples a day.

Of the 36 new COVID-19 cases reported in Manitoba Thursday, 28 were in Winnipeg. Fifteen people with the coronavirus were hospitalized in Manitoba, including seven in intensive care. Winnipeg reported five hospitalizations with two in the ICU.

Friesen said they're looking to hire more staff for more COVID-19 screening sites. He was on the phone Wednesday with "various nurse associations" about hiring retired and sidelined nurses to staff the sites.

"There's lots of work underway to see where we are able to borrow workforce from our current conventional health care system." It's not just hiring nurses to conduct swabs that they have to consider, he said.

Security, logistics, signage, supply and co-ordination have to be considered at the same time as public health officials moved Winnipeg into code orange restrictions on Monday. "That has created interest among people of going to testing sites," he said.

A new mobile COVID-19 test site was set up in the parking lot of Flea Whiskey's on Portage Avenue Wednesday. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

A new mobile COVID-19 test site was set up in the parking lot of Flea Whiskey's on Portage Avenue Wednesday. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

"Part of this is having that flexibility and the ability to carefully respond. We're trying to respond as quickly as we can," the health minister said.

"Remember, it was really only six to eight weeks ago that in Winnipeg many people were calling for these sites to be decommissioned because they were underutilized."

Now there are more cases, more people seeking tests, and more sites will continue to "pop up" over the next two weeks, he promised.

"Help is on the way."

He wouldn't specify when or provide locations other than to say they'll be in eastern, central and southern Winnipeg, as well as in Brandon, Winkler and Portage. As the additional sites are brought into service, they will be able to take up to 1,400 samples a day, and have the ability to increase to 2,600 a day, a provincial government spokesperson said later in an email.

Chief provincial public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin said Thursday "they're getting their processes in place."

Roussin reminded Manitobans that early in the pandemic, the system scaled up to 300 or 400 tests a day and "that was a big improvement back then."

They've scaled up significantly, but not as quickly as the demand for COVID-19 tests in Winnipeg.

On Monday and Wednesday this week, collection sites on Main Street and Pembina Highway stopped accepting walk-ins and drive-ups at 1:30 p.m.

On Tuesday, they began turning people away at noon, and the St. Mary's Road site stopped accepting clients just after 2 p.m. On Thursday, the Main Street and Pembina Highway sites reached capacity at 1:40 p.m.

"We're doing over 2,000 a day, some days now, and we definitely want to do better," Roussin said.

On Wednesday, 1,803 tests were completed. Since February, 186,668 tests have been conducted.

carol.sanders@freepress.mb.ca

Carol Sanders

Carol Sanders
Legislature reporter

After 20 years of reporting on the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home, Carol moved to the legislature bureau in early 2020.

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