August 12, 2020

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Winnipeg Free Press



Province's top doctor focused on limiting risk of importing virus

Asymptomatic testing considered for those who leave Manitoba for work

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As Manitoba approaches a possible June 1 reopening of most businesses and services, health officials are keeping a close eye on COVID-19 entering the province.

The chief provincial health officer said he is considering asymptomatic COVID-19 testing for those who often leave Manitoba for work.

"We might look at groups that are required to leave the province frequently due to their occupation," Dr. Brent Roussin said Monday. "We might offer regular asymptomatic testing to them and asymptomatic surveillance or sentinel surveillance at health-care facilities (where) anyone presenting for any reason, we would offer them a test just to ensure we're getting a community sampling to ensure we're not missing any of the virus."

Manitoba Opposition leader Wab Kinew has written a letter to the chief provincial public health officer and the premier asking them to include the Legislative Assembly in Phase 2 of Manitoba’s reopening plan.

Manitoba Opposition leader Wab Kinew has written a letter to the chief provincial public health officer and the premier asking them to include the Legislative Assembly in Phase 2 of Manitoba’s reopening plan.

"...Democratic functions of the Legislative Assembly are an essential service for Manitobans—especially in light of thousands of public and private sector layoffs," the letter to Premier Brian Pallister and Dr. Brent Roussin said.

Wednesday is the last scheduled sitting of the house in Manitoba.

Kinew asked for regular and frequent house sittings be included in Phase 2. He pointed out that other jurisdictions have developed plans to ensure regular sittings in June.

Provinces representing the vast majority of Canada’s population – including Quebec, Ontario, Alberta, British Columbia and Prince Edward Island — are planning regular sittings of their legislatures next month. The federal parliament will continue to sit multiple times a week in June.

"If the premier thinks businesses and restaurants can go back to work, he should start doing his job as well,” Kinew said in a press release that accompanied the letter.

— Staff

Last week, the province quietly introduced asymptomatic testing at hospitals and health-care facilities where COVID-19 testing is offered. But don't expect random testing to pop up everywhere, Roussin said Monday.

"We'll probably not be at any point where we just do large, widespread, indiscriminate asymptomatic testing," he said. "There's really low value in that." And even though a date for Phase 2 of Manitoba's economic reopening (expected to be June 1) will be announced this week, don't expect targeted testing of asymptomatic restaurant, retail or personal service workers.

"The value of a negative test in a person without symptoms is relatively low," said Roussin. "If you don't have symptoms and you have a negative result, we can't put much weight on that.

"If that person develops symptoms a few days later, they can't rely that they've had a negative COVID-19 test."

They will need to be tested again, he said.

In order for Manitoba's economy to successfully reopen and for consumers to be confident, testing needs to increase, Premier Brian Pallister said on April 28. He expects Manitoba's testing capacity will triple to 3,000 tests a day by the end of summer.

Chart showing daily count of new COVID-19 cases in Manitoba

On Monday, Roussin said the province can regularly perform 1,000 tests a day and has the capacity to do 2,000, but hasn't conducted nearly that many. Quality, not quantity of testing is what matters, he said.

"What's important is we have the ability to test all symptomatic Manitobans right now. That's the important thing — not the numbers."

That was not the case in March and April when sick people and travellers wanting to be tested were screened by Health Links and only those who met specific criteria were referred for testing. Earlier this month, the province opened testing to those with mild symptoms without requiring a Health Links referral. Now it's offering tests to people without symptoms who show up at a hospital or testing site.

Asymptomatic testing has its limitations, Roussin said. When it’s targeted, it will give you an idea of "what may be circulating in the community," but isn’t intended to inspire consumer confidence, he said.

"A negative test result in a person without symptoms? That's a negative test right this second. Tomorrow, if that person is symptomatic, that could be COVID-19," said Roussin. "To reassure people in those circumstances, that's not really the ability of this test to do that," he said. "We want to ensure symptomatic people are staying home. We want to ensure we’re testing symptomatic people so we can identify cases early and do contact tracing."

"What's important is we have the ability to test all symptomatic Manitobans right now. That's the important thing ‐ not the numbers." ‐ Dr. Brent Roussin

Testing people without symptoms can be rolled back easily if Manitoba needs to ramp up testing for people with symptoms who are a higher risk, Roussin said.

For now, Manitoba has few new cases — the most recent being two reported Friday; both linked to an earlier positive case at a Winnipeg Walmart. In total, Manitoba has just 17 active cases with 268 people who've recovered and seven who've died. Fewer people with flu-like coronavirus symptoms are showing up to be tested. On Sunday, 343 laboratory tests were performed, bringing the total since early February to 38,962.

"Certainly having the capacity to test is what’s really important," Roussin said.

The biggest concern right now is someone bringing the virus into Manitoba.

"We still see virus circulating in other provinces," said Roussin. "We need to ensure we're limiting the risk of importing this virus."

He said the 14-day isolation period for those entering Manitoba won't be lifted until other provinces sustain an "R-number" — the average number of people infected by someone with COVID-19 — below one.

The trucking industry, which involves regular, interprovincial travel, said it would welcome asymptomatic testing for its members.

"It makes a lot of sense," said Manitoba Trucking Association executive director Terry Shaw. He said it would give "peace of mind" to those who work in transportation — and any other sector required to work in and outside Manitoba's boundaries.

"Our members are open to it."


Carol Sanders

Carol Sanders

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.

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