Reacting to mounting pressure to speed up and expand Manitoba's COVID-19 screening capacity, Premier Brian Pallister announced Thursday the establishment of two new drive-thru test sites in Winnipeg.
Pallister’s announcement came less than three hours after Manitoba’s chief public health officer was unable to answer repeated questions on the creation of new testing sites at the province’s regular COVID-19 update.
When pushed by reporters at Thursday’s 12:30 new conference to commit to a timeline, Dr. Brent Roussin said there were too many moving pieces to offer any sort of guarantee.
Less than three hours later, Pallister was singing a different tune.
"I believe Manitobans deserve to get an improved system with better testing, shorter lineups, faster response times," Pallister said, as he announced the creation of the new testing sites.
One is expected to open at 1066 Nairn Ave. on Tuesday, with another coming on stream at 125 King Edward St. the week after next. More test sites are to open in Dauphin, Portage la Prairie and Winkler.
Pallister said the government is working to expand hours at existing test sites. An announcement on that is expected next week.
Health officials are meeting with doctors in a bid to use their offices to expand testing.
As well, Pallister announced that Red River College will begin to train people later this fall who can perform nasal swabs and other coronavirus screening tasks.
The late-day announcement came as Manitobans continue to suffer hours-long waits for coronavirus tests and up to a week for test results — and a day after critics attacked his government's throne speech for not offering a plan to improve the situation.
The premier's announcement had several of the hallmarks of a hastily arranged event. A formal notice did not go out to all media, and there was no accompanying news release. Details of several of the new initiatives would not be provided until next week, reporters were told.
"I believe Manitobans deserve to get an improved system with better testing, shorter lineups, faster response times." – Premier Brian Pallister
NDP Leader Wab Kinew said he wonders why the government took so long to act.
It's long been known that test capacity would need to be ramped up by fall, he said.
"There are serious questions about why the government is only making these moves at this late date," he said.
It's also been evident for months that more staff would have to be trained to expand testing, Kinew said. The government should have acted sooner to prepare a college course so that students could have begun training at the beginning of the academic year.
Pallister admitted even he's not satisfied with the province's performance on testing of late.
"There are serious questions about why the government is only making these moves at this late date." –NDP Leader Wab Kinew
"I think we can do better, and when you can do better, you should," he said.
He said weeklong waits for COVID-19 test results are "just not acceptable."
On Thursday, the single drive-thru testing site in Winnipeg began turning away people seeking a nasal swab at around 2:30 p.m., according to the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority. The three other WRHA testing sites were not expected to reach capacity.
According to the provincial government, 2,480 swabs can be collected per day, provincewide under optimal conditions, namely favourable weather and staffing.
Newly announced drive-thru sites in Winnipeg are expected to be able to collect up to 400 samples a day each.
On Thursday, Roussin confirmed tests are being completed at Cadham Provincial Laboratory within 24 to 48 hours, but both before and after the sample reaches the lab, the province is still hitting speed bumps.
The total turnaround time for a COVID-19 test result is closer to 60 hours, or three days, Roussin said, and can be influenced by the time it takes to get a swab to the lab.
Meanwhile, more Manitobans are calling Health Links and wait times are piling up, with reports of people sitting on hold for up to three hours. Roussin said the province is looking at adding additional staff and expects those waits to shorten.
"We certainly are aware of continued frustrations with specimen collection and result wait times, and so work is well underway in evaluating the entire system from specimen collection to transport, to lab testing, to result delivery. We will continue to improve that access to Manitobans," he said.
Danielle Da Silva
Danielle Da Silva is a general assignment reporter.
Larry Kusch didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life until he attended a high school newspaper editor’s workshop in Regina in the summer of 1969 and listened to a university student speak glowingly about the journalism program at Carleton University in Ottawa.