For the first two years of the pandemic, Winnipeg’s Arseny family did everything they could to avoid catching COVID-19.
They watched their hands. They wore masks indoors when they went to public places. They avoided large gatherings when that wasn’t allowed.
When Manitoba started easing up restrictions, the Arsenys figured it was time to relax a little.
“We just decided if the province says it’s OK, then we’re going to start loosening up a little bit,” Lindsay Arseny, the only member of her family of four who did not contract COVID-19 over the past month.
Her daughter, Marley, and son, Quinten, both tested positive using rapid antigen tests, developed symptoms and are now out of quarantine. Her husband, Nicholas, got very sick and remains extremely weak as recovers at home.
Lindsay says she believes the province acted too quickly in eliminating all of its restrictions, particularly easy-to-follow rules such as wearing masks in indoor public places.
“Everybody’s saying we have to get back to living our lives and we have to learn to live with COVID,” she said in a Zoom interview on Thursday. “But I think it was a little bit early.
“People just assume, ‘Well, the government says it’s OK, so COVID’s pretty much gone,’ and it’s very much not gone, because as soon as it loosened up — we’ve been good for two years — and all of a sudden we have household full of COVID.”
It’s impossible to determine how many other families are in the same boat as the Arsenys. It’s no longer clear how many Manitobans are contracting COVID-19 at all.
Manitoba restricted access to PCR tests for COVID-19 in early January, chose not to track the results of rapid antigen tests that most Manitobans now use to self-diagnose the disease, and then announced this week its intention to close down all remaining provincial COVID testing sites.
The reason? Little demand for PCR tests Manitoba no longer allows most people to access.
Everybody’s saying we have to get back to living our lives and we have to learn to live with COVID, but I think it was a little bit early.– Lindsay Arseny
“The number of PCR tests have decreased significantly over the past few months as infections decreased and the availability of rapid antigen tests increased,” Manitoba Public Health said in a statement on Thursday.
“PCR testing is now used only where clinically indicated, such as for referral to treatment or for certain pre-op patients.”
The provincial testing sites are slated to close April 15. Some people in Winnipeg will still be able to get PCR tests at the privately run Dakota Medical Centre, the Minor Illness and Injury Clinic and Ma Mawi Wi Chi Itata Centre.
PCR tests will otherwise be restricted to doctors’ offices. Doctors Manitoba says it is working with the province to figure out how to commission those tests.
Winnipeg epidemiologist Cynthia Carr says she is concerned those PCR tests won’t take place quickly enough.
“This is an immediate, ‘I have an infectious disease’ situation. If you wait a week for an appointment, that’s not helpful at all,” she said.
Testing delays are important to avoid in order to ensure COVID-19 treatments such as antiviral drugs are effective. Those drugs only work when patients get them soon after they develop COVID symptoms.
As of April 1, it’s also up to patients to find out iwhether they have tested positive. The province stopped notifying COVID patients of their diagnosis by phone on Friday, when it ended a call-centre contract with Winnipeg firm 24/7 In Touch.
Patients can still look up their result online — or call their family doctor.
The province also closed down its daily COVID dashboard this week, and no longer discloses the total number of COVID patients in hospital.
Instead, the province is issuing an epidemiological report once a week that offers a snapshot of COVID admissions and deaths during the previous week.
On Wednesday, Manitoba Health Minister Audrey Gordon said public health is simply treating COVID-19 like other infectious diseases.
“Public Health monitors a variety of different viruses: West Nile … the list goes on,” she said. “It’s very extensive.”
Unlike COVID-19, West Nile is not transmitted from person to person. Mosquitoes are the main vector. A total of 45 people have contracted West Nile in Manitoba over the past five years, according to public health epidemiological reports. None of them died.
Lindsay Arseny says she would prefer to know the genuine incidence of COVID-19, even as she concedes she grew weary of listening to daily case counts when the province was still able to track them.
“It was anxiety-inducing to hear it all the time. Sometimes I wanted to shut it out and not listen, but I had to listen because that’s how I base a lot of my decisions,” she said, explaining she pulled her kids out of school a week early in 2021 because it was clear from provincial data it was no longer safe.
“That’s what we based our decisions on,” she said. “So going into this blindly is new and it’s a little scary.”
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