Manitoba boosts COVID-19 testing capacity — but still falls shy of mark set by premier

By | July 24, 2020

Manitoba has increased the number of COVID-19 tests it can process but remains short of the premier’s goal of 3,000 per day.

On Thursday, the province completed 1,640 laboratory tests for COVID-19, a single-day record for the province.

In April, Premier Brian Pallister promised Manitoba will be able to complete 3,000 tests a day between the work of Cadham Provincial Laboratory and private lab Dynacare.

That remains an aspirational goal. The two labs together expect to be able to process 2,500 tests per day in August, after Dynacare’s Manitoba COVID-19 processing is fully operational.

Right now, Cadham Lab can process about 1,000 tests a day on a sustainable basis, said Dr. Paul Van Caeseele, medical director at the provincial lab.

“We’ve designed ourselves to do between 500 and 1,000 tests per day,” he said Friday in an interview. “We can manage the odd blip that goes above that — up to 1,500 — but we wouldn’t want to sustain higher than 1,500 a day.”

Right now, some COVID-19 samples are processed by Dynacare at the company’s lab in Brampton, Ont., Van Caeseele said.

Dynacare’s Winnipeg facility is slated to open by August and will be expected to process as many as 1,500 tests a day, he said.

While public-sector unions criticized the province for contracting the private lab, Van Caeseele welcomed the facility as a means of reducing Cadham’s workload.

“Our duties also include making sure that we’re in constant communication with the National [Microbiology] Lab and other provincial labs, making sure that we’re training all these other labs in the province and keeping them up to date with what’s going on with testing and the way the virus might be changing,” he said.

Cepheid’s GeneXpert device can only process one COVID-19 sample at a time, but it can do it in 45 minutes. (Nicole Williams/CBC)

“We also need to communicate regularly with our public health officials and the government leadership as to what is occurring and what might be needed. So it’s handy to have somebody to offload some of the more straightforward testing onto.”

In addition to the two labs, Manitoba has purchased eight GeneXpert rapid-testing machines, manufactured by Cepheid, a California-based company. The GeneXpert device can process a single COVID-19 sample in about 45 minutes, he said.

Three of Manitoba’s largest hospitals — Winnipeg’s Health Sciences Centre and St. Boniface Hospital and the Brandon Regional Health Centre — each have one of the GeneXpert machines.

The remaining five have been deployed The Pas, Norway House, Thompson, Garden Hill First Nation and Hodgson, near Peguis First Nation, Van Caeseele said.

The province is in the process of stockpiling single-use GeneXpert cartridges at a rate of 150 per day in anticipation of an increased demand on testing this fall. The machines are not being used right now, except in rare instances at the three hospitals, Van Caeseele said.

“They’re very simple to use. In fact, it comes as a cartridge where all you do is you inject a specimen into it and pop it into the machine and the machine does the rest,” he said. “They’re wonderfully simple and wonderfully popular as well.”

‘Detectable blip in rhinovirus activity’

The high demand for testing in Manitoba this week appears to be the result of “a detectable blip in rhinovirus activity,” which causes the common cold, Van Caeseele said.

“We went for quite a stretch of relatively low demand for testing and that testing more than doubled overnight,” Dr. Brent Roussin, Manitoba’s chief provincial public health officer, said on Thursday, after long lines appeared at Winnipeg COVID-19 sampling sites.

Van Caeseele said the busy workload this week could be a preview of the coming months.

“This is giving us a glimpse as to what the fall would look like. We usually see the respiratory viruses start to circulate in greater numbers come September, coincidentally with the return of children going to school. So this is giving us a bit of a practice run,” he said.

Cadham Provincial Lab helped the province process a record number of COVID-19 tests on Thursday. (Submitted)

Influenza transmission almost disappeared late this winter, Van Caeseele added, likely as a result of social distancing, handwashing and other measures taken by Manitobans to avoid COVID-19.

It’s unclear whether a similar effect will be seen this fall with the common cold, influenza or COVID-19. A recent spike in Manitoba case numbers underlines the need for continued vigilance, Roussin said Friday.

The premier’s office, meanwhile, said it still intends to increase Manitoba’s test-processing capacity to 3,000 samples a day.

“Increasing our testing capacity is a top priority of our government and a key component of our balanced approach to restarting the economy,” Pallister said in a statement.

The province has yet to identify how that will be accomplished.

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