Demand for COVID-19 tests has overwhelmed provincial laboratories with results pending for more than 7,500 people across Manitoba, just one day after public-health officials insisted capacity had not been exceeded.
In a release sent late Thursday afternoon, the provincial government said it is taking at least four days for COVID-19 test results to be reported back to the public.
Consequently, the 556 new COVID-19 infections reported Thursday — the highest single-day increase since May 20 — does not accurately reflect the number of people currently carrying the virus.
"Long line-ups and wait times for test results need to be expected," the province said in the release.
Public-health officials did not hold a media availability Thursday. A request for comment from Premier Heather Stefanson and Health Minister Audrey Gordon was not returned.
However, deputy chief provincial public health officer Dr. Jazz Atwal was asked repeatedly about the province’s ability to ramp up testing capacity during a news conference Wednesday afternoon as hundreds of people in Winnipeg who were feeling unwell and fearing they were infected with the coronavirus sat in bumper-to-bumper vehicle lines snaking around test sites or stood outside — in some cases for hours — to get a nasal swab.
"At the present time, from my understanding, capacity has not exceeded," Atwal told reporters Wednesday. "The system hasn’t, from a testing side, been overwhelmed at this point. It’s being stretched."
Atwal said work was underway to increase capacity; the province said Thursday it is currently "exploring options to expand laboratory capacity to help alleviate the backlog."
A new testing strategy that would put a greater emphasis on the use of rapid tests was also near completion, Atwal said. No other details were provided.
Opposition NDP Leader Wab Kinew said the massive test backlog shows the Progressive Conservative government has not learned from past mistakes and "refused to invest" in contact tracing and testing.
"Manitobans want to do everything they can to make it through the holidays safely, but the PCs are making it harder for folks to do the right thing," Kinew said in a statement to the Free Press. "It looks like Premier Stefanson and her Health Minister will spend the holidays repeating the mistakes of Brian Pallister and past PC health ministers."
It’s time for COVID-19 priority-testing lists and a stronger public-health message to tell Manitobans not to get tested if they don’t have any symptoms — or even if their symptoms are very mild, experts say.
"If you can’t get tested, you still know what you need to do," said Dr. Richard Rusk, a former provincial medical officer of health. He urged Manitobans to have "a quiet Christmas, a quiet holiday" and isolate themselves if they have symptoms, even if they don’t have results or the ability to get tested. Rusk is now the medical director of the Pure Wellness private medical clinic in Winnipeg. Until last year, he specialized in infectious diseases for provincial public health and has expertise in managing testing and contact-tracing capacity.
The testing system is designed for people who are sick, not for people who don’t have any symptoms, he said, but because of the widespread transmission of COVID-19 now, "anyone who’s got a sore throat would be worried."
The demand is due to the degree of virus transmission now, but Rusk said some of the people seeking tests might have just been trying to be as safe as possible before Christmas.
"If we’ve run out of capacity, does that change anything? I’m not convinced it does," he said, emphasizing that people should still avoid having lots of contacts and follow established public-health guidelines.
Asked if Manitoba could have done anything differently to avoid reaching maximum capacity, Rusk urged individuals to do whatever they can.
"We can blame, but we also have to take responsibility," he said. "None of us want to go back to March of last year, none of us, especially when it’s Christmas. But those core public-health approaches are essentially (the key). Isolation is still, by far, the best way of making sure the virus does not leave you and infect someone else."
Testing should be prioritized for symptomatic Manitobans who are considered high-risk — those living in congregate settings, the elderly and the immunocompromised, said medical microbiologist Dr. Philippe Lagacé-Wiens. He urged the province to develop a priority list and stop testing asymptomatic people until the situation improves.
"The messaging really has to start to change once you’ve got backlogs like this," he said.
The province has said long lines at testing sites should be expected — and that was the case again Thursday as Manitobans idled their vehicles at drive-thru sites or stood in lengthy queues in the cold. Several people were turned away an hour before closing time at the Garrick Centre site after standing in a block-long line. The Health Links phone line, too, is completely overwhelmed — taking 4,000 calls a day from people who wait hours on hold to speak with a nurse.
Public-health officials reminded Manitobans they can’t get tested through the public system if they need results to travel. Prospective travellers must book an appointment with a private provider.
The rapid, but predicted, jump in COVID-19 cases has been attributed to the highly infectious Omicron variant, with the number of new cases expected to double every two to four days. Between one-quarter and one-third of all new cases were estimated to be Omicron as of Wednesday.
Earlier pandemic projections also put Manitoba on a course to hit 1,000 cases daily by early January due to the variant, which is more likely to cause an infection in fully vaccinated people.
The fastest increase in new cases has been in Winnipeg, where 355 new infections were reported Thursday. The city currently has a seven-day average of 200 cases a day, compared to an average of 68 cases one week prior.
Another 62 cases were reported in Southern Health region, 51 in Prairie Mountain , 47 in the North and 41 in Interlake-Eastern.
In the past week, the seven-day average for cases in Southern Health — where COVID-19 vaccination rates are the lowest in the province — has remained steady at 49 cases a day. The region had driven provincial case counts for weeks with an average of 60 cases a day at its fourth-wave peak.
However, epidemiologist Souradet Shaw said it’s too soon to say if the fourth wave has crested in Southern Health.
Rather, it’s possible that the Delta-variant epidemic has either flatlined or decreased while Omicron remains on an upward trajectory in the region, Shaw said.
"We may see case numbers stall a bit in that region, and then rise rapidly, in line with the rest of the province," said Shaw, who is Canada Research Chair in Program Science and Global Public Health at the University of Manitoba.
"Accessibility of PCR testing, and willingness to test, will also play into what we are seeing in reported cases over the next couple of weeks."
Meanwhile, the number of people being treated for COVID-19 grew by seven to 144, including 30 in intensive care, after some marginal improvements in hospitalization numbers from a week ago, a spokesman for Shared Health said.
As of midnight Thursday, 91 patients were in intensive care in Manitoba for both COVID-19 and non-COVID-19 care.
"Given the sharp increase in COVID activity in our province in recent days due to the presence of the Omicron variant, we anticipate these numbers will continue to climb — perhaps significantly — in the days ahead," the spokesman said.
According to the health authority, the rate of admission to intensive care for COVID-19 cases has been consistent throughout the pandemic with about 1.5 per cent of all cases requiring critical care.
“Given that so much is still unknown about the Omicron variant, it is difficult to determine its effect in the coming days on ICU admissions." – provincial spokesman
"Given that so much is still unknown about the Omicron variant, it is difficult to determine its effect in the coming days on ICU admissions," the spokesman said. "If that statistical trend continues to hold with this new variant, eight or nine of the 556 new cases reported today by public health will be admitted to ICU in the next week or two.
The province reported that 47 per cent of COVID-19 patients being treated in hospital Thursday were unvaccinated and 71 per cent of COVID-19 patients in intensive care were unvaccinated.
Statistics from Shared Health show that of 394 COVID-19 patients admitted to intensive care between June 1 and Dec. 11, 92.1 per cent were not fully vaccinated.
The statement from Shared Health encouraged people to get third-dose booster shots, wear masks and stay home and get tested when ill.
"Doing these simple things will not only significantly reduce the risk of getting COVID, but it will also help fatigued health-care workers at hospitals and health centres who are bracing for another patient surge in the coming days," the spokesman said.
— With files from Katie May
Danielle Da Silva
Danielle Da Silva is a general assignment reporter.