By Steve Lambert, The Canadian Press
WINNIPEG — The Manitoba government is changing its COVID-19 testing process amid rising case numbers, a backlog of tests and more signs that public services are being strained by workers out sick with the novel coronavirus.
Health officials said most people who go to provincial testing sites will now be given rapid antigen tests to take home instead of a PCR test, which is considered more accurate, done on-site and completed in a lab. There will be exceptions for some people such as hospitalized patients and people with weakened immune systems who show symptoms.
Most people who test positive with a rapid test at home will no longer be asked to take a PCR test to verify the finding, although there are exceptions that include front-line health workers, elementary and high school students, and educational and child care staff.
“This is to preserve our laboratory testing capacity,” Dr. Jazz Atwal, deputy chief public health officer, said Wednesday.
People who test positive with only a rapid test will isolate and follow the same rules as people officially deemed positive, but will not be counted as part of the daily tally of new cases reported by the government.
The province was completing about 4,000 tests a day and has a backlog of roughly 6,800, Atwal said.
The announcement came as the province announced 1,790 new cases and two additional deaths. Atwal said most cases of the Omicron variant are going undetected, so the true number may be closer to 16,000.
“With the previous variant, with Delta, we knew for every case we identified we missed out on four. With this Omicron variant, likely for every case we identify, we’re missing out on maybe eight, maybe 10 cases,” he said.
The fast-spreading Omicron variant has taken its toll on workplaces, as employees who fall sick or test positive are required to isolate.
The Winnipeg Police Service said 170 of its personnel were off on COVID-related leave Wednesday. That prompted the service to declare a state of emergency under its collective agreement with employees so that it can move officers from areas such as the guns and gangs unit to general patrol work.
“That’s why we’re shifting our resources to ensure that our general patrol officers have adequate resources to respond to the needs in the city, particularly the urgent calls,” police chief Danny Smyth said.
Manitoba’s rising case counts have driven up the number of people in hospital although the demand on intensive care units has remained steady to date. Manitoba has so far not had to ship patients to other provinces to free up beds as it did last spring.
There were 30 COVID-19 patients in intensive care Wednesday out of 92 in total. There is current capacity for up to 114 intensive care patients, the province said.
The Opposition New Democrats called on the government to make rapid antigen tests more widely available so that people don’t have to line up at testing sites or await testing kits that are being handed out in some schools.
“Manitoba’s priority should be coming up with a plan to distribute those quickly, fairly and as widely as possible,” NDP Leader Wab Kinew said in a prepared statement.
— with files from Brittany Hobson