WINNIPEG - Manitoba is looking at making rapid COVID-19 tests widely available to the general public, perhaps for free, Premier Heather Stefanson said Tuesday.
Stefanson said she has talked with Dr. Brent Roussin, the province's chief public health officer, about easing current rules, which focus on rapid antigen test distribution mainly to businesses and other employers. Some pharmacy chains offer in-store rapid testing, which can cost $40 or more.
"I've asked Dr. Roussin and others to look into this, to see how we can ... ensure that those rapid tests are more readily available," she said.
"I think it's very important, if we can get those rapid tests and know and understand that people are infected with COVID, that they can begin their isolation or whatever public health says they should be taking in terms of action."
In Nova Scotia, residents are able to get free rapid tests from pop-up locations across the province for at-home testing. Saskatchewan also offers free rapid tests that people can take home. In British Columbia, the tests are free for certain groups including residents of long-term care homes.
When asked whether Manitoba may follow suit on offering tests for free, Stefanson said the government is considering it.
Rapid antigen tests detect specific proteins of the virus that cause COVID-19, can be done at home and can often provide results within 20 minutes. Health Canada says anyone who tests positive should get confirmation with a PCR test, which is more accurate.
Stefanson's comments came as there were more signs that Manitoba's intensive care system was straining to keep up with rising COVID-19 numbers.
A provincial web page that tracks bed usage said there were four available critical care beds and two patients awaiting admission Tuesday afternoon. On the weekend, the province issued an urgent appeal to the federal government for up to 30 intensive care nurses to boost staffing.
Stefanson said she hopes Manitoba can avoid a situation like last spring when dozen of intensive care patients were flown to other provinces in a bid to free up beds.
"We will always do whatever it takes to ensure that patient safety comes first, and so I will never say that patients may not have to go out of province again ... but these are the tools that we have in our tool box."
The Opposition New Democrats said the Progressive Conservative government has failed to boost ICU capacity and should call in military help to increase hospital staffing levels.
"We know nurses are super important to addressing the staffing crisis right now, but we also need respiratory therapists," NDP Leader Wab Kinew said.
"We need more health-care professionals. We need other people to help bolster our health-care capacity."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 14, 2021.