Medical staff have been stealing some of Manitoba’s limited supply of COVID-19 rapid tests, while businesses have been using taxpayer-purchased kits for personal use.

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This article was published 29/12/2021 (188 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

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Medical staff have been stealing some of Manitoba’s limited supply of COVID-19 rapid tests, while businesses have been using taxpayer-purchased kits for personal use.

Opposition parties blame the province’s botched rollout, with antigen tests much harder to find in Manitoba than neighbouring provinces.

“Grace Hospital estimates that approximately 75 rapid tests were stolen from the hospital’s staff testing room, beginning on Dec. 20,” wrote Winnipeg Regional Health Authority spokesman Paul Turenne.

In an email to Grace staff obtained by the Free Press, the hospital’s privacy manager notes rapid tests “have been getting stolen at an alarming rate” and should only be used for staff who haven’t provided a proof of COVID-19 vaccination.

The health authority said the thefts did not have an impact on staff testing, and didn’t say whether anyone had been disciplined. As of Dec. 23, the tests were moved into human resources and security offices to cut back on the risk of theft.

One source not authorized to speak with media told the Free Press rapid test theft is rampant in multiple Winnipeg health-care venues.

Meanwhile, a handful of local business owners and staff of public institutions have posted to social media about using rapid tests for personal Christmas gatherings.

Businesses can access these tests through a provincial partnership with the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce, in which the companies only pay for shipping from the government’s materials distribution agency.

The website for ordering the kits does not mention any prohibition on personal use, though one form from the province suggests the tests are only for unvaccinated staff.

The chamber site says the tests are “available to all Winnipeg businesses,” though the organization has said in interviews any business in Manitoba can use them — prompting one Twitter user to joke about opening a bogus business to order tests and distribute them to the public.

In any case, the province said it would follow-up on the misuse of tests.

“The theft of any property, especially in a health-care setting, is a serious breach of trust. Similarly, the allegations of misuse of rapid testing kits provided to the private sector will be reviewed with the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce and corrective action taken,” a spokeswoman for the Central Services department wrote.

“The province has faith that the vast majority of Manitobans, including health-care workers and people in the private sector are honest and trustworthy and would condemn any misuse of rapid test kits.”

Both the Manitoba NDP and Liberals said people wouldn’t be stealing or misusing rapid tests if the province had made them more available.

“This is really about the (Tory) government’s absolute failure to equitably provide rapid tests to the public,” said NDP health critic Uzoma Asagwara, arguing a mix of incompetence and ideology is putting vulnerable people at the most risk.

The Opposition MLA noted Saskatchewan residents have been able to pick up rapid tests, for free, at spaces such as libraries as of a month ago. “It’s really a feast or famine circumstance that is inexcusable.”

Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont said the PCs need to stop chalking up the issue to supply chain problems, given other provinces have made kits available sooner.

“That’s an evasion of responsibility,” he said.

Lamont was aghast to see Health Minister Audrey Gordon helping to assemble rapid test kits Tuesday, saying Infrastructure Minister Ron Schuler, who oversees the Emergency Measures Organization, should be handling such matters so Gordon can focus on the hospital crisis. Lamont noted, however, Schuler won’t encourage people to get vaccinated.

Meanwhile, a Winnipeg grocer recently sold packages of rapid tests for $25 to $40 each (he had acquired the tests separately, and not from the chamber program).

“It’s a s—- show; there’s no other way of describing it,” Lamont said.

Gordon’s office referred queries to Central Services. The department said it has formed a working group to consider expanding the criteria of who qualifies for rapid test kits.

“The province is continuously examining options to increase distribution, including the potential to use libraries and other public facilities, while ensuring limited supplies are effectively used,” a spokeswoman wrote.

She said workers in health-care and vulnerable settings remain the priority for rapid tests.

“The widespread distribution of rapid testing kits to people without symptoms may not be the best use of supply, given that a negative result for asymptomatic people is of limited value.”

That didn’t convince Lamont, who argues it was short-sighted to let health-care workers opt for antigen tests instead of requiring them to get vaccinated.

“We were burning through rapid tests instead of having a vaccine mandate, and now we’re caught short.”

— with files from Danielle Da Silva

dylan.robertson@freepress.mb.ca

Dylan Robertson

Dylan Robertson
Parliamentary bureau chief

In Ottawa, Dylan enjoys snooping through freedom-of-information requests and asking politicians: "What about Manitoba?"