OTTAWA — The federal government has sent Saskatchewan more than double the number of COVID-19 rapid tests Manitoba has received, despite the Liberals pledging to treat all provinces equally.
Liberal cabinet minister Dan Vandal told the Free Press the discrepancy stems from Saskatchewan requesting a higher number of test kits.
"We need to arrive at something that is fair; we need to make sure that every Canadian has access to rapid test and every Manitoban does as well," said Vandal, who represents St. Boniface—St. Vital.
For weeks, Manitobans have been left scratching their heads at why neighbouring Saskatchewan doles out test kits to the public at libraries and Co-op stores, when the local vast majority have never seen a rapid test with their own eyes.
Data from the Public Health Agency of Canada and the Manitoba and Saskatchewan governments suggest, as of Nov. 30, Saskatchewan had received a cumulative 9.5 million rapid tests, while Manitoba got 2.7 million tests from Ottawa.
Saskatchewan’s public safety agency said in December 2021, it received an additional four million tests. Ottawa said it sent 2.45 million to Manitoba that month, yet the provincial government pegged its received shipments at three million.
That means in the year 2021, Saskatchewan got a total of 13.5 million rapid tests from the federal government, while Manitoba received some 5.1 to 5.7 million. (Saskatchewan has a population roughly 15 per cent smaller than Manitoba’s.)
Vandal, the sole Manitoban in cabinet, said the numbers reflect provincial demands.
“We need to arrive at something that is fair; we need to make sure that every Canadian has access to rapid test and every Manitoban does as well.” — Liberal cabinet minister Dan Vandal
"I’m told that Saskatchewan requested a large number of rapid tests last year, as part of their public rapid test rollout program, and that’s why they’ve received a higher number, which I really wasn’t aware of until recently," he said.
Central Services said Tuesday all rapid tests Manitoba received in December have already been deployed to COVID-19 testing sites, schools, First Nations, health-care facilities, Winnipeg first responders, and employers who need to test unvaccinated staff as part of public health orders.
On Wednesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced provinces and territories would receive 140 million rapid tests in January.
Federal Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos noted this amounts to one test per Canadian per week, and said the tests would be distributed to provinces on a per-capita basis.
"The demands of the provinces — we take those into account, but we have to make sure that everyone is treated fairly," Duclos told reporters in French on Parliament Hill.
Vandal argued his government ought to balance out these looming shipments to account for provinces that already received substantially more or fewer tests.
"That has to be a factor in the analysis that public servants are doing when they distribute those. I think we need to work in tandem and good faith with provincial officials," the MP said.
Vandal said there might be some wiggle room for "extenuating circumstances," such as providing larger shipments upfront to hard-to-reach communities, but the distribution should be proportionate to population over the long term.
“I’m told that Saskatchewan requested a large number of rapid tests last year, as part of their public rapid test rollout program, and that’s why they’ve received a higher number." — Dan Vandal
"As always, I’m going to certainly advocate for Manitoba, to make sure we’re getting our fair share."
Yet, certain provinces have already been told how much to expect — with Duclos saying Wednesday he’d informed his Quebec counterpart to expect 31.5 million rapid tests this month.
Manitoba’s deputy provincial chief public health officer said Wednesday he had no information other than what Ottawa had said publicly.
"We’re thankful for the additional tests that are coming, and we’ll be looking to utilize them in the most appropriate fashion for Manitobans," said Dr. Jazz Atwal.
The office of Premier Heather Stefanson had no comment Tuesday on the difference in shipments.
Central Services Minister Reg Helwer was unavailable Wednesday for an interview, but his department said it asked the federal government this fall for 19.4 million tests, for the period from December 2021 to March 2022.
Ottawa’s newly announced 140 million tests would mean roughly five million for Manitoba in January, if delivered on a proportionate basis. Duclos would not say whether provinces can expect similarly high deliveries in subsequent months.
Manitoba has been far more hesitant than Saskatchewan to provide rapid tests to the general public, because the tests are deemed less sensitive at detecting the novel coronavirus, particularly in those without symptoms.
“I know some people had been using rapid-antigen tests to have get-togethers. That is not a good utilization of that test, and will miss a number of infections related to that. That’s why we don’t recommend it.” — Dr. Jazz Atwal
While rapid tests can detect extremely contagious people with high viral loads — particularly with the Omicron variant — they are not perfect, Atwal warned.
He said rapid tests are good at sussing out whether someone with symptoms has COVID-19 or another ailment, and recurring use for unvaccinated people can cut down on the risk of outbreaks in high-risk settings.
But otherwise, a negative test can give a false sense of security, he said, particularly for one-time use.
"I know some people had been using rapid-antigen tests to have get-togethers," Atwal said. "That is not a good utilization of that test, and will miss a number of infections related to that. That’s why we don’t recommend it."
Vandal said the knock-on impact is MP constituency offices getting calls from the public, asking where they can find the abundance of rapid tests federal ministers keeps mentioning in news conferences.
"All governments need to be more clear with what they’re delivering — and I think Manitoba needs to be more clear with what they’re delivering to Manitobans," he said.
Manitoba has struck its own note on rapid tests since early in the COVID-19 pandemic, at first rushing to procure its own supply while lamenting slow shipments from Ottawa, and then rejecting some of those provided tests as inferior.
Leading into the holidays, Manitoba was one of the few provinces that did not provide any tests to the public, leading to Winnipeg retailers selling privately procured rapid tests for as much as $40 a pop.
Meanwhile, the province has put on pause a September program to distribute tests to businesses through the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce, after ordering a probe into taxpayer-paid tests being used for private gatherings amid soaring demand for these kits.
— with files from Danielle Da Silva
Parliamentary bureau chief
In Ottawa, Dylan enjoys snooping through freedom-of-information requests and asking politicians: "What about Manitoba?"