Opinion

Deep into a fourth wave of COVID-19, this one fuelled by the hyper-infectious Omicron variant, Manitoba seems once again to be hilariously unprepared in the critical area of testing.

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Deep into a fourth wave of COVID-19, this one fuelled by the hyper-infectious Omicron variant, Manitoba seems once again to be hilariously unprepared in the critical area of testing.

As the province sets a new record almost every day for new infections, Manitobans are forced to wait for hours in line to get a PCR test, and then days to get a result.

The delays at the front-end of the testing system are being exacerbated by a lack of lab capacity; there are nearly 7,000 unprocessed nasal swabs sitting in labs right now. In response to the testing crunch, Manitoba is following the lead of other provinces and limiting access to PCR tests.

New rules introduced Wednesday limit PCR tests — the so-called gold standard for detecting the virus that causes COVID-19 — to select constituencies including symptomatic patients in hospital, those with weakened immune systems, the homeless and anyone who has travelled outside Canada in the last 14 days.

Dozens wait in -20 C temperatures last month at University of Manitoba SmartPark for a COVID-19 test. (Jessica Lee / Winnipeg Free Press)

Dozens wait in -20 C temperatures last month at University of Manitoba SmartPark for a COVID-19 test. (Jessica Lee / Winnipeg Free Press)

Even those who get a positive result from a rapid antigen test will have less access to a followup PCR test. Now, a short list that includes health-care workers, first responders, family caregivers, staff and students in the public school system will be eligible to get a PCR test.

At first blush, the move to limit access to PCR tests is understandable, given that Omicron is exponentially more infectious than previous variants. But it’s also cause for concern.

From an epidemiological perspective, it’s exceedingly risky to limit access to PCR tests and push more people to rapid antigen tests, which are considerably less accurate.

From an epidemiological perspective, it’s exceedingly risky to limit access to PCR tests and push more people to rapid antigen tests, which are considerably less accurate.

From a political and practical perspective, it’s also an admission that Premier Heather Stefanson and her Progressive Conservative government have given up all hope of expanding PCR testing capacity. And we should all be worried about how that will affect our ability to escape the grips of Omicron.

We should also be concerned that, once again, it appears the Tory government has failed to use the lulls between waves of COVID-19 to address chronic problems with the pandemic response, including nurse staffing and testing.

Remember that after the first wave of COVID-19 in the late winter of 2020, then-premier Brian Pallister dismantled the pandemic command structure and closed testing sites. When the second wave hit in the fall, it took weeks to restore capacity.

Since then, some steps have been taken to expand testing capacity.

Government contracted with two private labs — BioScision Diagnostics and Dynacare — to process more nasal swabs. it also opened several rapid PCR test sites to produce same-day results for people working in public education.

However, the number of testing sites has continued to ebb and flow with each wave of COVID–19, and even with help from private labs, it’s clear we cannot keep up with current demand.

However, the number of testing sites has continued to ebb and flow with each wave of COVID-19, and even with help from private labs, it’s clear we cannot keep up with current demand.

What the province really needs is a support system of facilities and trained medical professionals, qualified to administer the PCR nasal swab test, that can be mobilized on short notice to help support the larger test sites with minimal lead time.

Remarkably, the Tory government was offered just such a support system.

Back in the spring of 2020, during the first wave of COVID-19, Doctors Manitoba said about two dozen physician-owned community clinics were willing to act as testing sites.

However, only two such clinics — the Dakota Medical Centre and the Minor Illness and Injury Clinic — were approved to conduct after-hours testing. Dakota does its testing at its main facility on Dakota Street, while the Minor Illness and Injury Clinic partnered with Red River College to operate a drive-through testing site at the school’s Notre Dame campus.

That left more than 20 other community clinics ready and willing to perform nasal swabs.

Health care workers assemble COVID-19 rapid testing kits for distribution last month. (John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Health care workers assemble COVID-19 rapid testing kits for distribution last month. (John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Why wouldn’t the province contract with these clinics to ramp up testing capacity on a rapid-response basis? It appears government didn’t want to pay the clinics to perform this valuable service.

When discussions were taking place, Doctors Manitoba asked government to fairly compensate clinics for additional costs associated with collecting nasal swabs.

First, the clinics needed to be open longer than normal; the testing had to be done after hours when regular patients had come and gone. Second, the clinics needed support for upgraded personal protective equipment (PPE) and for enhanced cleaning before the clinics reopened the next morning.

Doctors Manitoba said that after raising the issue of compensation, government lost interest in the whole idea. That is an odd response from a government that admitted just last month it still had $380 million in its pandemic-response kitty to be used to expand and enhance medical and economic programs.

There is no way to know if these clinics would have been able to perform enough tests to keep up with the sheer demand from the Omicron wave. But you can bet it would have moved the needle in the right direction at a time when we really need some positive news.

We desperately need to make better use of the lulls between waves of COVID-19 to build capacity in key areas of the pandemic response.

As emergency preparedness experts often say, if you fail to plan, you are planning to fail.

dan.lett@winnipegfreepress.com

Dan Lett

Dan Lett
Columnist

Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.