Winnipeggers tested for COVID-19 seek peace of mind for themselves, loved ones

By | March 29, 2020

Amandeep Dhillon reaches into his pocket with a motion that’s become almost instinctive in these uncertain times. He pulls out a miniature bottle of hand sanitizer and squeezes out some of the last drops.

“I’m running out,” Dhillon laments — and he doesn’t know how to find more.

A shortage of hand sanitizer is another uncertainty facing Dhillon, one of thousands of uneasy Manitobans sent to clinics and nondescript warehouses equipped to test potential carriers of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. 

A recent traveller from India, Dhillon, 29, doesn’t feel like he contracted the virus that’s killed one Manitoban and 27,000 others worldwide so far, but he cannot shake the thought that he might.

He worries about the symptoms he has — the stuffed nose, the cough, the slight chest pain — and the memory of a sneeze he keeps replaying in his head.

A week earlier, as his lengthy transatlantic flight was reaching its end, a man in his 50s or 60s sitting in the seat behind him was sneezing. Dhillon doesn’t know if the man contracted the virus that’s derailed the world’s economy, grounded flights and cancelled mass gatherings.

“It’s the one thing that’s still on my mind,” he says.

Moments after taking the test himself, Dhillon walks to his car, parked on Winnipeg’s Main Street. It’s a sunny day, but he might not see much more of that sun while hunkering down at home.

Self-isolation urged

At Winnipeg’s testing clinics for COVID-19, the stream of patients on a recent weekday is rarely overbearing; it’s more of a trickle.

They share a few common traits: Masks covering their faces, the hurried motion of disinfectant being rubbed on hands, the pamphlets they carry encouraging self-isolation. They head off in their vehicles as they await their test result.

A woman performs an initial assessment of a patient arriving in his car for a COVID-19 test. The worker, wearing a protective face mask, is keeping at least one metre’s distance away from others to respect physical distancing recommendations. (Ian Froese/CBC)

Jeff Reid hops out of the Mount Carmel Clinic, a North End health centre doubling as a COVID-19 testing clinic, wearing a protective mask over his face. He slips it off as he approaches his vehicle.

Reid is a train conductor by profession, and was told by his employer to report for testing. A week and a half earlier, he travelled to the United States. He became short of breath, he coughed, but Reid feels better now. He doesn’t think he has COVID-19.

“Yeah, I guess,” he says, when asked if he’ll isolate himself from family and friends.

Railway workers aren’t required to self-isolate, but are asked to do so if they develop mild symptoms.

“They say that, but I’m an essential employee.”

Only for people showing symptoms

For now at least, the COVID-19 clinics in Manitoba are exclusively for people who show symptoms, and by referral only — no walk-ins.

Initially, the province was only testing symptomatic people who travelled outside the province, who had been in close contact with a confirmed case or who worked with COVID-19 tests in the lab. Manitoba had 64 probable and confirmed cases as of Saturday.

That criteria was expanded last Thursday to other symptomatic individuals, such as health-care workers and those who live and work in remote communities or group settings — shelters or long-term care facilities are two examples.

When they show up, they’ll meet a number of health-care workers, decked in long gowns, masks and skin-tight gloves.

At Mount Carmel, a worker is stationed just inside the aged brick-covered building, referring patients to the conveniently located hand sanitizer station. 

The patients approach a desk with several medical professionals running a brief screening, where they ask about travel history and symptoms. They refer patients to a lobby specifically for people who may have COVID-19. The chairs are spaced out to encourage patients to stay away from each other.

Test irritating, ticklish

Often, the patient load is manageable — there were only 14 patients on a recent day, 34 patients the next. The wait is only a few minutes. 

They’re taken into a small office next, where more questions are posed. Then the patient tilts their head back, and a swab resembling a long Q-tip is poked up one nostril and down their throat.

Dhillon says his eyes watered. Each patient describes the feeling differently: it’s irritating, it tickles, it’s not that bad, they say.

The mood of nearly everyone leaving the test is positive. They applaud the health-care staff and say the whole experience — around 20 minutes — was quicker than they expected.

In a lot of ways, these testing clinics have become a roll call of people who left Winnipeg and returned home to a pandemic unrivaled in their lifetimes.

Drive-thru testing

Motorists are pointed to the sole drive-thru COVID-19 testing site in Winnipeg, which functioned as a Manitoba Public Insurance service centre before the pandemic began. The Fort Garry site tested 141 people last Thursday and 137 people last Wednesday. (Ian Froese/CBC)

More than 10 kilometres south of the North End clinic, a Fort Garry centre now exists to examine people while they’re in their vehicles.

“It’s a lot faster and painless than I thought it was going to be,” says AJ Basi.

A professional basketball player in the U.K., Basi’s season was cut short by the pandemic’s arrival. In his one week in Winnipeg, he’s been relegated to the basement of his parents’ house as he self-isolates while they stay upstairs.

At this COVID-19 drive-thru clinic, each driver is greeted outside by security workers with safety vests wrapped over their jackets. From at least one metre away, they jot down the personal details and contacts of every person being screened.

The security worker stretches her arm and hands the paper to the patient, who reaches out from the window they cracked open. The worker calmly discards her gloves, sanitizes her hands and slips on a new pair. She goes through this motion between every patient.

The patient then drives into a massive warehouse-like garage, but they’re prohibited from stepping out. They speak to a medical professional from within the closed cocoon of their vehicle. When asked, they present a paper against the window so it can be read on the other side.

They only roll down their window when it’s time for the test.

AJ Basi, a professional basketball player, has been keeping his distance from his parents since returning from the U.K., and says he’s concerned he could pass the virus on to others. (Ian Froese/CBC)

If case he has coronavirus, Basi’s being careful. It’s become his habit to use hand sanitizer.

“I’m more so concerned about passing it on to other people,” he say from his vehicle, now in the parking lot of a nearby grocery store.

Around him, he sees shoppers hauling groceries — you’d be excused for forgetting a pandemic was happening, even for a moment.

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