As Manitobans wait in long lines for COVID-19 testing by public health, industry heavyweights with deep pockets are arranging for private tests for employees and avoiding the queue.
Without discussing details of private industry clients, Dynacare spokesman Mark Bernhardt said their tests don't take precedence over the COVID-19 tests performed for public health in Manitoba. All of the specimens it collects for businesses are sent to the company's facility in Brampton, Ont., for testing, he said.
"We prioritize COVID-19 testing for the provincial public health-care systems over any private testing we may perform," he said in an email.
No publicly operated systems in Canada allow for a private-pay option that would permit individuals to get their COVID-19 test result faster, a provincial government spokeswoman said Wednesday. "From the beginning of the pandemic, screening, testing and treatment for COVID-19 is being provided at no charge, whether or not the person has coverage through Manitoba Health," she said in an email.
But allowing industry to pay for private COVID-19 tests so workers can avoid long waits undermines and threatens to erode Canada's universal health-care system, one advocate says.
"Private COVID testing sets up a two-tiered system whereby those industries or companies who can afford these tests jump the queue, and the rest of us have to wait to use the health system," said Molly McCracken, Manitoba director of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.
"The province should improve public COVID testing to ensure we all have fair and timely access," she said.
"Private COVID testing sets up a two–tiered system whereby those industries or companies who can afford these tests jump the queue, and the rest of us have to wait to use the health system." – Molly McCracken, Manitoba director of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.
She doesn't accept Dynacare's explanation that it prioritizes public health testing over its private clients. "It still remains that industry is getting special treatment for the amount of testing capacity there is," McCracken said. "The public health officer should determine which tests are a priority, not industry."
Dynacare said the only COVID-19 testing for individuals it performs in Manitoba is for public health. The majority of Manitoba's COVID-19 tests is performed by Cadham Provincial Laboratory.
The running total of how many COVID-19 tests have been completed in Manitoba — 170,045 as of Wednesday — doesn't include the results of private testing for companies, the provincial spokeswoman said. The number of private COVID-19 tests performed for industry — from film productions in Winnipeg to construction projects in northern Manitoba — remains a mystery.
Dynacare would not disclose how many private COVID-19 tests it performs, saying that information is proprietary.
Manitoba Hydro said the Keeyask Generating Station project hired a private company in the spring to do workplace "screening" for COVID-19 — a nasal cavity swab test to provide a "clear" or "not clear" result, said Hydro spokesman Bruce Owen.
"If we had a 'not clear' result, public health would be notified. Public health would administer a Cadham Lab test and this test result would be reported as part of the provincial stats," Owen said in an email. "To date, we have not had any 'not clear' results, or a confirmed case of COVID-19 at the project site," he said. Unless they get a "not clear" test result, Hydro doesn't report the workplace COVID-19 test results to public health.
In January, COVID-19 was made a reportable disease requiring medical laboratories to report positive results to Manitoba Health.
Bernhardt said Dynacare will only provide the government with information on private COVID-19 tests if they are positive. That information is provided the day the results are received, he added.
"This is to ensure that the entire perspective of the COVID-19 situation can be seen by our provincial health-care stakeholders, including the work we may do for private clients."
After 20 years of reporting on the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home, Carol moved to the legislature bureau in early 2020.