Sampling-site bottlenecks continue to impede Manitoba COVID-19 testing efforts

When Bronagh Nazarko took one of her kids to get a COVID-19 test in Winnipeg, she ended up waiting four hours in line and missing a day of work.

When her husband took their other two kids to get tested several days later, he too waited four hours and also missed a day in the home office.

The experience left her wondering how other parents are supposed to juggle child-care and work responsibilities while they wait for a COVID-19 swab, which Manitoba’s government has spent six months promoting as a central facet of its pandemic response.

“We’re very lucky that we have fairly flexible office jobs and that we can work from home, but for a lot of people, I just can’t see that this is sustainable to do this,” Nazarko said Wednesday in an interview.

“I can see that this would deter people from getting tested, and I’m concerned that that means cases will get missed because people don’t want to wait.”

Winnipeg still undergoing surge in demand for swabs

For weeks, there have been long lines outside Winnipeg’s sole drive-through COVID-19 sampling site in the North End on Main Street and heavy traffic at its three other sampling sites.

Winnipeg is now the epicentre of the province’s COVID-19 outbreak, with the city possessing 335 of Manitoba’s 418 active cases.

(Jacques Marcoux/CBC)

The province has responded by warning more restrictions could be placed on the Winnipeg health region if residents and visitors don’t become more diligent about gathering in small groups, washing their hands, keeping a safe distance away from each other and wearing masks when they cannot.

On Tuesday, the province also pledged to open another sampling site by Sept. 28 under the management of private health-care company Dynacare. It is supposed to collect up to 1,400 samples a day, at first, with the eventual potential to administer 2,600 swabs.

“The new specimen-collection sites announced [Tuesday] will help address waits for sample collection that are due to increased volumes,” Manitoba Public Health said in a statement.

Manitoba’s Official Opposition contends this promise is not good enough for Manitobans right now.

“I think people are upset today, waiting hours in line,” NDP Leader Wab Kinew said.

“This is something that the government has seen coming for six months or more. And again, we all made tremendous sacrifices, whether on a personal or social level to try and flatten the curve, to buy the government more time.”

Testing inspires confidences, premier suggested

At the height of Manitoba’s economically stifling lockdown, the premier suggested widespread testing and contact tracing would be the key to allowing the province to get back to business.

“We know that through increased testing there is an increased possibility that we’ll be able to build confidence — not only in the general public, but in the health officials whose guidance we must listen to — that we are not opening the door to a resurgence in COVID infections in our province,” Premier Brian Pallister said on April 16.

Twelve days later, he pledged to increase lab-testing capacity to 3,000 tests per day with the help of a new Dynacare lab in Winnipeg. That lab was completed by the end of July and Manitoba can now complete as many as 2,800 tests per day, between the work conducted at the Dynacare lab and Cadham Provincial Lab.

In recent weeks, the province has been completing fewer than 1,500 tests per day, on average, and Winnipeggers began to complain about long lines.

(Jacques Marcoux/CBC)

Unlike in April, when health-care workers left idle due to restrictions on hospital and clinic operations presented an easily accessible pool of skilled labour, health administrators found themselves unable to find the staff to extend hours at sampling sites, Chief Provincial Public Health Officer Dr. Brent Roussin said last week.

Health Minister Cameron Friesen’s office said the province is facing unprecedented challenges.

“We empathize with Manitobans’ frustrations surrounding COVID-19, and work to alleviate these stressors as we have done throughout the entire pandemic,” Friesen’s office said in a statement.

The Winnipeg Regional Health Authority is recruiting volunteers to help direct traffic at sampling sites, spokesperson Paul Turenne said.

The Dynacare site will also help, Friesen’s office said. The precise date it will open has not been determined, said Mark Bernhardt, Dynacare’s communications manager based in Brampton, Ont.

Kinew accused the province of relying too heavily on the private firm.

“It seems as though the government is just abdicating [its] responsibility to provide what I think is the most important public health measure right now: figuring out whether or not you have COVID during the COVID pandemic,” he said. 

“The government’s declared a state of emergency, and yet they basically created a vacuum of leadership and just said, ‘OK, Dynacare … you go handle everything for us.'”

Workplace testing available for private clients

Kinew also expressed concern that Dynacare provides workplace COVID-19 testing for companies willing to pay extra to test their workers.

“If someone has more money and they have a registered business, all of a sudden they can skip the line. To me, that’s not fair and it violates the public health interest that we all have in fighting the pandemic,” he said.

Bernhardt confirmed Dynacare provides mobile workplace testing for COVID-19 as well as blood tests for other illnesses. All samples collected from private clients are processed at a lab in Brampton, he said, and do not compete for lab time with public samples in Winnipeg.

Nazarko, who spent hours in the testing queue with her kids, said she is concerned about will happen in Winnipeg during the winter, when waiting for hours outside won’t be possible.

“I would personally really like to see them switch to an appointment-based system where we could wait at home and my husband and I could work until our appointment time comes,” she said.

Roussin said earlier this month the province is pondering what to do with sampling sites during the winter.

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