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If the Pallister government's handling of COVID-19 among workers at Maple Leaf Foods in Brandon was a test for how it will cope with the coronavirus when schools reopen, then it has failed, the Opposition says.
The province can’t, or won't, ramp up COVID-19 testing to allay the fears of workers at the Brandon hog plant where at least 26 employees have the virus so far, and that doesn't bode well for the reopening of Manitoba schools, NDP leader Wab Kinew said Wednesday.
He called for the provincial government to "dramatically" increase testing capacity for the coronavirus in Manitoba. The cluster of cases in Brandon, including workers at the Maple Leaf plant there, show there is an urgent need to increase testing capacity in that city and western Manitoba, Kinew said at a hastily-called press conference.
"We should be looking at this, as Manitobans, as an important test in advance of the back- to-school time of year," he told reporters outside the legislature.
Worried workers and the union representing 2,000 employees at Maple Leaf have called for the plant to close temporarily and for all workers to be tested for COVID-19. The province has not done so, saying public health officials have ruled out the plant as a source of the spread of the virus in Brandon, which has a cluster of at least 64 cases.
"The only rationale that has been provided is that it would strain the testing capacity in the region and across the system if suddenly 2,000 employees were to be tested very quickly and a further 600 employees in the region would be tested on an ongoing, rotating basis," Kinew said. That is a concern with Manitoba schools reopening in less than four weeks, he said.
"If we're not able to test 2,000 Maple Leaf employees right now when there's concern about an outbreak in that part of the province, what's going to happen when we go back to school? Presumably, once children are back in school, there's sniffles and colds and other things that cause parents concern and there will be an increased demand on the coronavirus testing capabilities here in Manitoba," said Kinew.
"If we're not able to test 2,000 Maple Leaf employees right now when there's concern about an outbreak in that part of the province, what's going to happen when we go back to school?" — Manitoba NDP leader Wab Kinew
Premier Brian Pallister, who was in Brandon for a caucus meeting Wednesday, said Kinew's comments are "misguided and reveal a willingness to make observations that aren't science based."
The Progressive Conservative government is following the advice of chief provincial public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin, and so should Kinew, Pallister told reporters in Brandon.
"Dr. Roussin has been very, very clear that there's very questionable benefit to a non-symptomatic person being tested -- that simply creates a longer line for someone who has symptoms," the premier said. "Really, what good is it to go and get tested when you're not symptomatic then go back three days later when you have sniffles and get tested again?"
The NDP Opposition leader should be listening to experts, not acting like one, Pallister said.
"He is making an assertion that is dangerous and misguided and I would urge him to listen more appropriately to those who are experts in this area, which he is not."
Kinew tweeted later in the day Wednesday that a document called National laboratory testing indication guidance for COVID-19 prescribes asymptomatic testing at workplaces where physical distancing cannot be maintained, such as meat processing plants. That guidance, however, calls for asymptomatic testing for those with "known exposure to a confirmed case," which is being done at Maple Leaf.
The document also says to consider "the opportunity costs associated with the deployment of resources to test individuals who are asymptomatic and unlikely to be infected." It should be considered "only when testing for individuals who are symptomatic is routinely available."
"Dr. Roussin has been very, very clear that there's very questionable benefit to a non-symptomatic person being tested — that simply creates a longer line for someone who has symptoms." — Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister
In Brandon, the province added a second testing site this week to alleviate the long lines of people waiting for COVID-19 tests in recent days.
Increasing testing sites is not enough to deal with surges in demand for COVID-19 tests, said Kinew.
"They're only as good as the capacity to process the test on the back end -- that seems to be where the real issue lies right now." The province needs to invest in expanding the Cadham Provincial Laboratory but is lacking the political will, Kinew said.
The province has performed an average of 1,300 tests a day lately. Earlier in the pandemic, Pallister said he expected the testing capacity to reach 3,000 tests a day by fall. On Friday, 2,062 tests were performed but the goal of 3,000 tests hasn't been met.
"If the province is going to struggle to meet the request for 2,000 tests in Brandon right now, that highlights that we have a lot of work to do to be ready for the back-to-school season when many Manitoba parents, families and kids are probably going to want to be tested, too, to provide them with peace of mind," Kinew said.
After 20 years of reporting on the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home, Carol moved to the legislature bureau in early 2020.
Updated on Wednesday, August 12, 2020 at 6:02 PM CDT: Updates story to final version. Adds photos and pullquotes.
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