A shortage of COVID-19 testing capacity is forcing some Manitobans to scramble to find rapid antigen testing – and experts wonder why the province has waited so long to make home devices more widely available.
The province has not been able to meet demand for COVID-19 testing since December 23, when long lines to get nasopharyngeal swabs were made worse by a backlog of laboratory processing.
To ease the burden on private and public laboratories performing PCR tests, public health is now sending rapid antigen tests to their homes with symptomatic and vaccinated people who show up at testing sites.
The province also distributes rapid tests to businesses, through social service offices, and directly to some people with disabilities.
But, other Manitobans are left to search earnestly for rapid antigen testing.
At the Food Fare grocery store in Winnipeg’s Crescentwood neighborhood, packs of 25 rapid antigen tests were on sale for $ 400, while individual tests, unwrapped and repackaged with photocopied instructions, were selling for $ 40 each before. stocks are running out, company chairman Munther Zeid said. .
He said his profit margin was minimal, considering the labor involved in repacking and sanitizing the kits.
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“People don’t want to wait five or six hours in line for a test,” Zeid said, adding that some pharmacies were selling individual kits for $ 50. “We sold in three days because we had the lowest price.”
Some online retailers were selling rapid antigen tests for as little as $ 50 for packs of five.
Some redistribute the tests
Some business owners, meanwhile, gave away part of the allowance they received to acquaintances who work with the public.
Jordan Farber, whose real estate business received 60 rapid antigen tests as part of a Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce program, said he provided kits to teachers and healthcare workers.
“When I realized that health workers, teachers and parents whose children are in daycare with our daughter did not have access to rapid tests, I made the decision,” he said. . “Whether it’s right or wrong, allowed or not, a lot of these people are at an impasse.”
Farber said he was frustrated to see other provinces – like Ontario – handing out rapid tests to retail stores and libraries.
“I don’t know why there is now a secondary market for rapid tests in our province,” he said.
In a statement, Manitoba Health said it does not regulate the private sale of rapid antigenic tests.
The provincial department said “it has a sufficient supply of tests” to meet demand at provincial testing sites and has ordered more tests so that distribution can be expanded.
However, public health and medical experts have said Manitoba is too slow to add rapid testing to its pandemic mitigation arsenal.
A “mad race”
Epidemiologist Souradet Shaw, Canada Research Chair in Program Science and Global Public Health at the University of Manitoba, said Manitoba should have rolled out rapid antigen testing when available from government federal earlier this year, so people can familiarize themselves with using them now.
“Instead, we’re in a mad rush to try and deploy a program amid the most cases we’ve ever seen, with probably the most transmissible variant ever seen, while the capacity of our lab has been passed, ”Shaw said. said by e-mail.
“It’s like building an airplane while you fly it. “
Shaw also said the public was confused by the province’s mixed messages on rapid tests.
“These tests, for example, are also used in healthcare facilities to screen for unvaccinated workers. I think that adds to the frustration everyone is feeling,” he said.
“It’s a little strange that a government that had preached earlier on personal liability was so reluctant to distribute these tests more widely.”
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University of Manitoba chronic disease specialist Dr. Meghan Azad who spent part of the year working outside the province said she was surprised Manitoba was slow to distribute rapid tests.
“I lived in Nova Scotia this fall and they were handing it out like candy,” she said. “Literally. In October, places had bowls of free Halloween candy next to bowls of free quick tests.”
University of Manitoba microbiologist and statistician Aleeza Gerstein said she wanted the province to make it clearer that a negative rapid test result should not be treated “as a pass to social activity. “.
She also questioned Manitoba’s decision to ask symptomatic people to take rapid tests home from a testing site and then return if they are positive.
“For people who do not have easy transportation or spare time available, I am concerned that this will introduce an unfair barrier to accessing PCR tests,” she said, noting that PCR tests can be needed to qualify for paid sick leave, return to work, or obtain treatment for the long term COVID.
Health Minister Audrey Gordon was asked on Friday if she regretted Manitoba’s late adoption of rapid tests.
“We have certainly been able to meet the needs of Manitobans at our test sites,” she said in response.