OTTAWA — Manitoba has become the sole province to stop tracking how many COVID-19 rapid tests it has used, after persistently low uptake numbers.
"The province’s primary focus is deployment of tests, where they can best be used to help identify cases that would otherwise go undetected," a provincial spokeswoman said Friday.
The Free Press has made recurring requests for information on how many rapid tests Manitoba has received and how many have been put to use. The figures were unflattering.
In late April, only 1 per cent of rapid tests had been put to use. That rate increased to 4 per cent in June, and 6 per cent a month later. As of September, the data is no longer available.
A federal dashboard shows all nine other provinces are reporting test usage to Ottawa; the only other jurisdiction not doing so is Nunavut.
Instead, Manitoba is solely focused on how many tests it has deployed — meaning kits have left the provincial warehouse and reached a business or institution.
"The province does not have the ability to track usage, other than to assume kits that are shipped get used, and if an organization orders more, (that) they have used up the supply provided," a provincial spokesman wrote.
Yet data from this spring and summer show only 10 to 17 per cent of deployed tests had been put to use by the receiving partner.
The government says it no longer has the resources to track how many tests get used.
"In order to run the kind of data about test-kit deliveries you’re asking for, staff would have to stop the other, more important work of ensuring the kits are shipped out, so we are not able to break the data down any further," a spokesman wrote.
As of Oct. 12, Manitoba had shipped out 1,130,700 tests of the 1,679,283 it has received from Ottawa or bought on its own, amounting to 67 per cent of those tests leaving the warehouse.
The province says these were sent out to 616 different addresses covering 268 entities, some of which have multiple sites.
That’s a huge uptick from mid-July, when the province deployed less than half the 949,248 tests it had acquired. The province says that’s because of an influx of tests from Ottawa and the entire public sector using the tests as part of public-health rules, instead of it being private-sector businesses requesting these tests.
NDP health critic Uzoma Asagwara was unimpressed, saying the province should be tracking how many tests get used so it can assess whether they’re preventing workplace outbreaks, the optimal frequency for using these tests, and if whether routine testing for unvaccinated people is encouraging them to roll up their sleeves.
"We’re in an unprecedented, deadly global pandemic. And it’s important for us to be able to have an understanding how every tool at our disposal to fight this pandemic is being used and how effective it is," Asagwara said, arguing the province should hire enough staff members to monitor the program.
"It seems like a very basic part of evaluating the effectiveness of these tools."
Asked to respond to that criticism, Health Minister Audrey Gordon deferred to the Central Services department, which provided written responses.
Asagwara said Manitoba should have gotten the tests out this summer so people could get used to using them ahead of the fourth wave, and the province could get a sense of how to best target the test kits.
"It’s disappointing, that this is another missed opportunity to use information to our advantage here in Manitoba, to keep people safe," the MLA said.
Rapid tests have become commonplace to screen front-line workers and students in Maritime provinces and parts of Europe, or even as peace of mind for people exposed to large groups of people.
The tests are much less sensitive than PCR tests, which are sent to laboratories and should be used when someone has symptoms. Rapid tests detect people with high loads of the coronavirus who don’t even know they’re sick, although they can produce false negatives in people who were recently infected or have low viral loads in their nasal passages.