Mad scramble for rapid antigen tests in Manitoba raises new questions about pandemic response

A shortage of COVID-19 testing capacity has some Manitobans scrambling to find rapid antigen tests — and experts wondering why the province waited so long to make the home-use devices more widely available.

The province has been unable to meet the demand for COVID tests since Dec. 23, when long lines to obtain nasopharyngeal swabs were compounded by a laboratory processing backlog.

To ease the burden on private and public laboratories that conduct PCR tests, public health is now sending rapid antigen tests home with symptomatic and vaccinated people who show up a testing sites.

The province is also distributing rapid tests to businesses, through social service offices and directly to some people with disabilities.

Other Manitobans are nonetheless seeking out rapid antigen tests with a fervour that approaches a scavenger hunt.

At the Food Fare grocery store in Crescentwood, packages of 25 rapid antigen tests were on sale for $400, while individual tests, unwrapped and repackaged with photocopied instructions, sold for $40 before supplies ran out, company president Munther Zeid said.

He said his markup was minimal, given the labour involved in repackaging and sanitizing the kits.

“People don’t want to wait five or six hours in line for a test,” said Zeid, adding some pharmacies are selling individual kits for $50. “We sold out in three days because we had the lowest price.”

Online retailers were selling rapid antigen tests for as little as $50 for packs of five. 

Test redistribution

Some business owners, meanwhile, have distributed some of the allotment they received to acquaintances who work with the public.

Jordan Farber, whose real-estate business received 60 rapid antigen tests through a Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce program, said he provided kits to teachers and health-care workers.

“When I realized that health-care workers, teachers and parents whose kids are in daycare with our daughter didn’t have access to rapid tests, I made the decision,” he said. “Be it right or wrong, permitted or not, a lot of these people are in a bind.”

Farber said he is frustrated to see other provinces — like Ontario — distribute rapid tests in retail stores and libraries.

“I don’t know why there is now become somewhat of a secondary market for rapid tests in our province,” he said.

Winnipeg motorists have waited hours in long lines for a COVID-19 test in recent weeks. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

In a statement, Manitoba Health said it doesn’t regulate the private sale of rapid antigen tests.

The provincial department said “it has an adequate supply of tests” to meet the demand at provincial testing site and has ordered more tests so distribution can be expanded.

Public health and medical experts, however, said Manitoba was too slow to add rapid tests to its pandemic-mitigation arsenal.

‘Mad scramble’

Epidemiologist Souradet Shaw said Manitoba should have rolled out rapid antigen tests when they became available from the federal government earlier this year, so people could have become familiar with their use by now.

“Instead, we are caught in a mad scramble to try and roll out a program in the midst of the largest number of cases we have ever seen, with likely the most transmissible variant yet observed, while our lab capacity has been overwhelmed,” Shaw said via email. 

“This is akin to building an airplane while you’re flying it.”

Shaw also said the public has been confused by mixed messaging from the province about rapid tests

“These tests, for example, are also used in health-care settings to screen workers who are unvaccinated. I think this adds to the frustration everyone is feeling,” he said.

“It is a bit strange that a government that had earlier preached about personal responsibility has been so reticent to distribute these tests more widely.”

Dr. Meghan Azad, a chronic disease expert who spent part of the year working outside Manitoba, said she was surprised Manitoba was slow to distribute rapid tests.

“I lived in Nova Scotia this fall and they were giving them out like candy,” she said. “Literally. In October, places had bowls of free Halloween candy next to bowls of free rapid tests.”

Microbiologist Aleeza Gerstein said she wishes he province made it more clear a negative result on a rapid tests should not be treated “a hall pass to social activity.” 

She also questioned Manitoba’s decision to ask symptomatic people to take rapid tests home from a testing site and then come back if they’re positive.

“For folks that don’t have easy transportation or free time available, I’m concerned that introduces an inequitable barrier into accessing PCR tests,” she said, noting PCR tests may be needed to qualify for paid sick leave, return to work or get treatment for long COVID.

On Friday, Health Minister Audrey Gordon was asked whether she regretted Manitoba’s late embrace of rapid tests.

“We were certainly able to meet the needs of Manitobans at our testing sites,” she said in response.

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