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Why Manitoba isn’t doing widespread coronavirus testing right now

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Over the past 10 days, we’ve been asking Global News viewers, readers and listeners to send us questions they have for the province about its response to the novel coronavirus pandemic. (You can still do so here.)

The most frequently asked question we’ve received over the past few days is why we’re not engaged in widespread testing of all Manitobans for COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, as recommended by the World Health Organization.

The short answer is we can’t — not yet.

Click to play video 'Manitoba declares state of emergency over COVID-19' Manitoba declares state of emergency over COVID-19
Manitoba declares state of emergency over COVID-19 – Mar 20, 2020

The long answer, however, is multi-pronged, according to Dr. Brent Roussin, the province’s chief public health officer, and Shared Health spokesperson Lanette Siragusa.

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First of all, it takes time to increase the province’s lab capacity, Roussin said on Sunday.

READ MORE: Coronavirus — Canadian health authorities prepare to increase COVID-19 lab testing

“We’re looking to now increase our lab capacity, which we’ve been doing all through that, so you have to focus on the most at risk,” he said.

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But it’s not so simple as just hiring more lab technicians, Roussin said. Supplies to conduct the testing were short last week across the country, he explained, including “what they call a reagent, the actual testing material,” adding that there were also issues with swabs and transporting tests.

This week looks better, said Roussin.

READ MORE: Canadian government says it will enact stronger COVID-19 measures if provinces can’t

Second, all the cases in Manitoba so far have come from travel — mostly international but also some domestic trips — according to public health officials, meaning there hasn’t been community transmission yet.

How do we know this if we’re not testing everyone? The province is tracking cases at emergency rooms, and people aren’t filling ERs with respiratory illnesses right now, said Siragusa.

Once that happens — and Roussin says it will happen — things will change.

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“The more and more you see this virus introduced into your region, the more likely you’re going to see community-based transmission,” he said.

“So we are definitely prepared to see that at all levels of the health-care system, and I think we need to anticipate that.”

READ MORE: Coronavirus — 36 Canadian Mennonite University students, 8 staff trapped in Guatemala

Third, while it’s possible to spread the virus when you don’t have symptoms, almost all spread comes from those who do have symptoms, Roussin said.

If you do have symptoms, Roussin says that unless you’re in dire straights, the best course of action is to stay home to prevent the spread.

In the meantime, the province is testing the most at risk first: health-care workers, those in essential services, those living on First Nations, the elderly and those with weakened immune systems.

For now, health officials are asking Manitobans to practice social distancing, wash their hands and take care of themselves, saying more testing is coming.

Questions about COVID-19? Here are some things you need to know:

Health officials caution against all international travel. Returning travellers are asked to self-isolate for 14 days in case they develop symptoms and to prevent spreading the virus to others.

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Symptoms can include fever, cough and difficulty breathing — very similar to a cold or flu. Some people can develop a more severe illness. People most at risk of this include older adults and people with severe chronic medical conditions like heart, lung or kidney disease. If you develop symptoms, contact public health authorities.

To prevent the virus from spreading, experts recommend frequent handwashing and coughing into your sleeve. They also recommend minimizing contact with others, staying home as much as possible and maintaining a distance of two metres from other people if you go out.

For full COVID-19 coverage from Global News, click here.

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