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At first blush, it seems to be a disaster in the making.

A city with a modest but worrisome surge in COVID-19. A shortage of testing capacity that has left many people unable to get tested. In a crisis where rapid access to testing and results is essential to control the spread of the novel coronavirus, it's a perfect storm.

How much testing should Manitoba be doing in Winnipeg, and how far off that target is it now? Those are questions for which public health officials have few answers.

Dr. Brent Roussin, chief provincial public health officer, was asked Thursday how many tests he would like to see done, in order to suppress the virus.

Suppression is the ambitious target for any testing program: enough individual tests to stop the chain of transmission of new cases. Infectious disease experts believe suppression has been achieved when the test positivity rate is at or below three per cent.

How much testing should Manitoba be doing in Winnipeg, and how far off that target is it now? Those are questions for which public health officials have few answers.

Although the province falls below that threshold, the city of Winnipeg currently does not — or so we believe.

Roussin rarely provides this number in his weekly briefings, but the enduring "code orange" threat assessment in place for Winnipeg and its bedroom communities seems to confirm it is currently above three per cent.

As for his optimal number of daily tests, Roussin, as he so often does, simply did not answer the question. He said "eradication" was not his goal. He never mentioned "suppression" or identified an optimum target for daily testing capacity.

Chart showing new daily cases and seven-day moving average

However, it was hardly the worst omission from Thursday's briefing.

Roussin and Health Minister Cameron Friesen, also in attendance, could not provide a salient explanation for why so many people are finding it so hard to get a COVID-19 test. That's a problem because, to date, the evidence used to assess the quality and quantity of Manitoba's testing capacity has been largely anecdotal.

The long lines and long waits, people being turned away when testing capacity at a given screening site has been reached, are compelling. Remarkably, the lines have been so long, and formed so early in the day, people are being told before 10 a.m. to go home because capacity has been reached.

If we're not testing enough now, what is enough?

Again, Roussin and Friesen continue to confound attempts to identify a legitimate target number. They are also evasive when it comes to explaining why so many people are being delayed or denied access to testing.

To wit: if Manitoba can do up to 3,000 tests, why are people being turned away when its only doing 1,800?

After listening to Roussin and Friesen for nearly an hour Thursday, one is left with an overwhelming sense they do not want to reveal the real reason people are being turned away. Or, more worrisome, they don't actually know.

If we proceed on the basis they do know but don't want to say, we can come to some conclusions from an anecdotal evidence — which strongly suggests there is enough laboratory capacity and testing materials, but not enough front-line staff.

Although there could be a range of lab-related problems — lack of staff, absence of materials (such as testing reagents), lack of test kits — we can flag insufficient screening sites and resources when reports come in about people being turned away from testing sites even though the daily total of tests appears to below capacity.

There were many reports of long lines, long waits and people being turned away Wednesday, a day when more than 1,800 tests were performed. There have been recent times when as many as 3,000 tests have been performed in a single day, with many more days registered in excess of 2,000.

The alert app has the potential to increase the number of Winnipeggers trying to access an already over-taxed local testing system.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

The alert app has the potential to increase the number of Winnipeggers trying to access an already over-taxed local testing system.

To wit: if Manitoba can do up to 3,000 tests, why are people being turned away when its only doing 1,800?

Friesen did concede it was difficult right now to find trained staff to work at the screening sites. Earlier in the pandemic, staff were seconded from hospitals to rapidly expand testing capacity. However, it became necessary to return those people to their normal jobs to help ease the backlog in medical procedures.

Friesen was mostly silent when asked if there aren't other sources of trained staff; people outside the provincial health-care system — private nursing companies, for example. All he could say was the province is trying to lure retired nurses to help out.

COVID-19 alert app goes live for Manitobans

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Starting Oct. 1, the COVID Alert app works in conjunction with Manitoba Health on a large number of smartphone models.						</p>
Starting Oct. 1, the COVID Alert app works in conjunction with Manitoba Health on a large number of smartphone models.

Posted: 01/10/2020 11:58 AM

OTTAWA — Manitobans can now use a smartphone app to help track potential exposures to COVID-19.

As of Thursday morning, COVID Alert will work in conjunction with Manitoba Health on a large number of smartphone models.

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It's bad in Winnipeg right now, but the bigger concern with the province's evasiveness is there is only going to be more demand on the COVID-19 testing system.

Friesen confirmed the federal smartphone virus alert app is now active in Manitoba. If you use it, and get an alert you have been in contact with a confirmed case of COVID-19, you will be asked to self-isolate and — wait for it — get tested.

Obviously, the alert app has the potential to increase the number of Winnipeggers trying to access an already over-taxed local testing system.

There is a desperate need for more information, more clearly presented, on exactly why so many people are waiting so long to get tested in Winnipeg.

Manitobans would like to see a response that demonstrates Friesen and others realize this is an urgent situation. Right now, officials are excelling at excuses and falling well short of expectations on solutions.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

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.

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