As COVID-19 testing lines grow, Manitoba expected to roll out rapid testing strategy soon

All Ellis Okemow wants for Christmas is to be reunited with his only daughter back home in Gods Lake Narrows.

Okemow and his partner, Delia Ross, came to Winnipeg from their northeastern Manitoba community to finish up Christmas shopping.

Instead, they ended up visiting four different Winnipeg COVID-19 testing sites in less than 24 hours.

They’re now in danger of missing their flight home Friday because of a surge in demand for COVID-19 tests and lengthy wait times for results.

“It’s crazy,” Okemow said after about 45 minutes of waiting in line at the Nairn Avenue testing location Wednesday. “We’ve only moved about three to four blocks.”

The couple later said they ended up waiting for five hours for a test, which is required to fly with Perimeter Aviation to communities like Gods Lake Narrows.

The lengthy waits at sites prompted the Winnipeg Police Service to issue a traffic advisory to motorists around the King Edward Street COVID-19 testing site Wednesday.

With high demand for COVID-19 testing as cases stemming from the Omicron virus variant spread rapidly, and more people in need of negative test results to travel during the holiday season, Ross wonders why the province isn’t doing more to help make rapid testing available.

“They’d make it easier and faster. Look at all the lineups,” she said.

Late Tuesday evening, the couple popped by the King Edward Street testing site but were told they would not get a test before it closed.

“The line was so crazy they had to shut the gate because it was already full,” Ross said.

Early Wednesday morning, they went to a walk-in COVID testing site on Garry Street, and then to another on King Street. 

Denied twice more.

After finally making it through the line and receiving their COVID tests, Okemow and Ross contacted CBC News to say they were told it could take up to three or four days to get their results.

Capacity pushed, not exceeded: Atwal

With long lines reported at many of the nine testing sites in Winnipeg, NDP Leader Wab Kinew wants to know how Premier Heather Stefanson intends to address testing capacity.

“The premier needs to come out and tell us what the plan is to confront the Omicron variant, to bolster our health-care system, to fix what is very clearly an overwhelmed testing system,” Kinew said.

Motorists have been lined up for blocks at COVID-19 testing sites in Winnipeg in recent days days, including at the King Edward Street location on Tuesday. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

NDP health critic Uzoma Asagwara called on the province to increase testing capacity.

“We have to do better by the citizens of this province. The province, the government, the premier, the minister of health need to do their part and make sure the capacity is expanded at COVID-testing sites,” Asagwara said.

“That means more locations to get tested. It means expanding the hours for people to get tested,” including making sure testing is available over the holidays, they said.

Despite the rise in demand for tests, Dr. Jazz Atwal, Manitoba’s deputy chief public health officer, said the province’s testing capacity has not been exceeded.

“It is being pushed, so our turnaround time has increased a little bit over the last little short period of time,” he said at a Wednesday news conference.

“We are looking at other avenues in relation to testing, to be able to expand that testing.”

Rapid testing strategy coming

That will include more widely accessible use of rapid tests for the public, Atwal said. The strategy for how to ensure that, and who will get the tests, is still being finalized, he said.

The province has already said rapid tests will be made available to schools for students in kindergarten to Grade 6 in January.

The federal government says it has purchased over 107 million rapid testing units. Provinces such as Ontario and British Columbia have already rolled out rapid testing campaigns, and Quebec is set to begin its campaign later this month.

Rapid antigen tests are less accurate than lab-processed polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests and are more susceptible to false positives.

But because they can produce results in 15 to 20 minutes and are most accurate when a person has COVID-19 symptoms, they can be a useful tool to help indicate a possible infection.

Rapid testing has already been used in Manitoba during the pandemic, including in First Nations communities and during outbreak situations.

Atwal said about 500,000 rapid testing kits have been distributed since the start of October.

“We want to utilize kits where they’re not wasted. We want to utilize kits and rapid tests in the most effective needs, and that’s that strategy we’re working on,” he said.

Okemow and Ross only wish rapid test results were acceptable for getting on their flight back to Gods Lake Narrows.

“Hopefully we get to go home before Christmas,” said Okemow.

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