Soaring COVID-19 case counts prompted healthy Manitobans to get in long lineups for free packages of rapid tests, a day after the province announced a change to its testing policy.

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Soaring COVID-19 case counts prompted healthy Manitobans to get in long lineups for free packages of rapid tests, a day after the province announced a change to its testing policy.

With the wind driving temperatures down to -30 C, Cory Werenich decided to brave the cold for a zipper lock bag containing three rapid tests from the provincial test site at the University of Manitoba, despite not having symptoms of COVID-19.

"We’re here in line because we heard it was going quick and they’re giving out free tests," Werenich said. "And if ever you feel ill in the morning, we just figured we have them on hand just before we go out and contaminate anyone else."

The Free Press spoke with more than a dozen people waiting for tests during the noon hour Thursday, one day after public health officials announced rapid tests would largely replace the more sensitive polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests at COVID-19 screening centres in Manitoba.

Most Manitobans five and up with COVID-19 symptoms will be given a rapid test kit to use at home to preserve laboratory testing capacity. With some exceptions for people in higher-risk settings, Manitobans are no longer asked to return for a PCR test if they test positive.

The U of M COVID-19 testing site in Winnipeg on Thursday.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

The U of M COVID-19 testing site in Winnipeg on Thursday.

Rapid test results are not tracked by the government nor are the number of tests handed out.

Who should be tested for COVID-19?

Manitoba public health officials say COVID-19 tests should generally be reserved for people experiencing symptoms of the disease, with a few exceptions.

Manitoba public health officials say COVID-19 tests should generally be reserved for people experiencing symptoms of the disease, with a few exceptions.

You tested positive on a rapid test:

If you test positive for COVID-19 on a rapid test, public health considers you to have the disease caused by the novel; coronavirus.

You are required to isolate away from others for a period specified by your vaccination status and notify close contacts they may have been exposed.

People who are fully vaccinated must isolate for five days since their symptoms appeared, as long as their symptoms are improving and do not have a fever. They must wear a medical mask in public for 10 days since symptoms appeared or they tested positive.

People who are not fully vaccinated must isolate for 10 days since symptoms appeared or they tested positive.

You have COVID-19 symptoms, but tested negative on the rapid test:

Public health says if you have symptoms but test negative, you might still have COVID-19.

You should continue to isolate and perform another test 24 hours later to see if it is negative. If it is negative, perform a third test 24 hours later to see if it is still negative.

In general, people who have symptoms need to stay home until their fever is gone and symptoms improve, according to public health.

You are a close contact to a COVID-19 case but don’t have symptoms:

Public health recommends rapid tests should be used if you had a high-risk exposure (for example: someone you live with is positive for COVID-19). In this case, public health recommends taking up to five rapid tests in the first seven days after exposure if you are exempt from quarantine requirements because you are fully vaccinated.

If test results are negative, do not assume you are not infected because symptoms can take up to 14 days to appear, according to public health. Get tested if symptoms develop.

People who are not exempt from quarantine (generally people who are not fully vaccinated) must complete the required quarantine period regardless of rapid test result.

— source: government of Manitoba

With the gold-standard tests now out of reach for the majority of Manitobans, Suzanne Mulaire questioned why rapid tests are not readily available so people can simply test at home should they get a sore throat or cough.

Most people, especially the elderly, don’t want to leave their home to wait for a test if they’re feeling ill, she added while waiting outside the test site. She was not experiencing symptoms.

"A community centre might work where you can go in and you don’t have to be freezing."

A number of other people the Free Press spoke to also expressed a desire to have tests ready to go if they developed symptoms or were exposed to COVID-19.

People walk out of the U of M COVID-19 testing site with rapid tests.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

People walk out of the U of M COVID-19 testing site with rapid tests.

"We’re hearing of so many people that know someone or have come in contact (with COVID-19)," said one person, who did not want their name published. "We think it would be good to have a couple on hand."

"It should be available through pharmacies or doctors offices, because this is ridiculous," another woman said. "I’m not too impressed with the rollout."

On Thursday, public health officials reported 2,548 new COVID-19 infections in Manitoba. However, due to backlogs in laboratory processing, daily case counts are considered to be a significant under-count of true infections.

To date, Manitoba has not widely distributed rapid tests, preferring to deploy tests to businesses through the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce or for screening of unvaccinated vulnerable sector workers rather than require them to be immunized against COVID-19.

Recently, rapid tests were given to families with children in kindergarten to Grade 6, First Nations communities, and to social services offices for clients. Last week, due to overwhelming demand for COVID-19 testing, the province began providing rapid tests to vaccinated Manitobans instead of PCR tests.

By comparison, Saskatchewan has provided free rapid tests to residents through libraries, grocery stores, fire halls and shopping centres to facilitate regular, at home screening.

Jordan Wieler walks out with a rapid test at the U of M COVID-19 testing site in Winnipeg on Thursday.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Jordan Wieler walks out with a rapid test at the U of M COVID-19 testing site in Winnipeg on Thursday.

Jordan Wieler was one of a number of people in line in Winnipeg who came for a test after learning they were exposed to COVID-19. He had not yet developed symptoms, and without direction from public health, determining which type of test he needed and where to go was confusing, Wieler said.

"I can’t keep up," he said of recent changes to testing and isolation requirements. "If I test positive on one of these, then I’ll do all of the things a vaccinated person has to do.

"Hopefully it’s negative. That would make my day."

One grandfather, who did not want his name published, said he was also exposed to COVID-19 but did not have symptoms. He wanted rapid tests for use while isolating away from his immunocompromised family members.

"If it was a positive, it would be too late for me to do anything, but it can help me from passing it on," he said.

In a statement, a spokesperson for the provincial government said people seeking tests are usually screened for symptoms to ensure they are receiving test kits according to public health testing policy, which is primarily for symptomatic people.

People may be asked to provide identification or their health card, the spokesperson said.

"We are aware, however, of asymptomatic people attending testing sites to get rapid test kits," the spokesperson said. "Staff do their best to adhere to the policy and the public is generally willing to accept the guidelines set out.

"We encourage the public to be careful about their demands for this scarce resource so the tests are available to those who need them."

danielle.dasilva@freepress.mb.ca

Danielle Da Silva

Danielle Da Silva
Reporter

Danielle Da Silva is a general assignment reporter.