Manitoba questions effectiveness of rapid COVID tests while others push for more access

The Manitoba government hasn’t exactly been the biggest booster of COVID-19 rapid tests.

It has repeatedly warned these tests offer a false sense of security. It has yet to make at-home testing kits widely available to the general public.

Elsewhere, it’s a different story.

In Nova Scotia, you can grab booze at the liquor store or take out a library book and pick up a free rapid test simultaneously. In Saskatchewan, you can fill up on gas at Co-op stations and leave with a free at-home test

Several provinces are offering free tests to the families of school-aged children, though the criteria differs by jurisdiction. 

“To me, it seems like other provinces are starting to catch up and realize how important these tests are, but Manitoba still has not really been making these tests widely available,” said Deanna Santer, an assistant professor in immunology at the University of Manitoba.

55% of Manitoba’s supply sent out

As of November, the province has distributed nearly 1.5 million of its 2.7 million tests.

There are growing calls for Manitoba to make these tests available to anyone who wants them for free, though it has been reluctant thus far. 

Dr. Jazz Atwal, deputy chief provincial public health officer for Manitoba, said holiday revellers shouldn’t put their hopes in rapid tests to ensure a COVID-free celebration.

“Rapid antigen tests aren’t very useful in that situation, so there’s a lot of evidence supporting that. We’re trying to utilize tests in the most effective manner,” he said at a briefing, adding “it’s almost impossible to mitigate risk completely when we’re looking at asymptomatic testing … and it’s not a good use of resources.”

Much of Canada’s rapid test supply has been sent to schools and businesses. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)

In recent months, governments throughout the world have dispensed rapid tests to more locations. It’s seen not as a replacement for PCR tests, but a complement — a do-it-yourself version, primarily in use at schools and businesses in Canada, that shows results in around 15 minutes.

Manitoba has tasked the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce to organize the distribution of at-home testing kits for businesses that want them. The chamber said more than 5,000 people have engaged with its online portal, but it doesn’t mean all of them made orders.

The province also provides tests for public-sector employees who’ve chosen mandatory testing rather than getting inoculated against the virus.

At this time, the province isn’t making these at-home kits broadly available to the general public, even amid rising COVID-19 case counts, the emergence of the omicron variant and a holiday season in which large gatherings are being held. Tests can be purchased for a cost at some pharmacies.

“We definitely could be using these rapid antigen tests more than we are right now,” Santer said.

She acknowledges the shortcomings of at-home tests, which use a swab to look for specific proteins made by COVID-19. People who are asymptomatic or in the early stages of infection may not have a lot of viral protein, and thus COVID may not be detected.

Still, Santer argues the province could use rapid tests to stop potential outbreaks — particularly in schools where students are not fully vaccinated — before they spread.

Stopping outbreak in its track

“If we could even catch a few more people right before having symptoms and then they didn’t go to school, they didn’t go to work, that’s still going to save a lot of spread,” she said in an interview.

“The main thing is that the tests, even though they’re not perfect, it can still be useful to find people that could be contagious because we do know before you have full-blown symptoms that you could still be contagious.”

Asked to explain why Manitoba isn’t dispensing rapid tests far and wide, the province didn’t answer but warned of its limitations.

It cited data that suggests rapid tests have under 30 per cent sensitivity in detecting asymptomatic cases, versus 70 per cent sensitivity for symptomatic cases. “In other words, they do not catch asymptomatic cases very well,” it said.

The province added that its asymptomatic screening of hospital patients before an operation suggests that at least 500 people would have to be tested with rapid tests to find a single COVID-19 case.

But these tests have “considerable utility” in places where there are COVID-19 outbreaks and high-risk situations, the spokesperson said.

“The province anticipates ongoing, and perhaps increased, use of them in the near future.”

NDP health critic Uzoma Asagwara said rapid tests are an extra piece of protection in the pandemic toolkit, and thus shouldn’t remain in storage.

“We’ve heard from folks over the weekend who would love access to rapid tests to make sure that they’re not missing school, they’re not missing work, they can take their kids to their doctors,” the MLA said.

Last week, federal health minister Jean-Yves Duclos said Ottawa would soon deliver a large amount of rapid tests to provinces and territories since the demand for them has increased significantly.

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