WINNIPEG — The Manitoba government is expanding COVID-19 testing as it prepares to reopen the economy, and is signalling that cost-cutting to limit the pandemic's effects on the provincial budget may not be as severe as some fear.
From now on, anyone with COVID-19 symptoms, such as a cough and runny nose, can get tested as long as they're referred by a clinician, Premier Brian Pallister announced Tuesday.
Until now, tests have been mainly limited to symptomatic people in specific groups, such as health-care workers and returning travellers.
Pallister said the expanded testing will help people feel safer when they venture out to stores.
"It's important that the people who work in the store are confident that they don't have COVID ... and it's important also, I think, for Manitobans to know that that's the case so they can be confident when they're doing their shopping."
Pallister is to reveal Wednesday his plan to start easing restrictions on people and businesses.
Slowly and gradually, he has said, more non-essential businesses will be allowed to open. Health officials have indicated the 10-person limit on public gatherings might also be raised.
The province plans to triple the capacity to run tests, which is currently at 1,000 per day at the provincially-run Cadham laboratory.
By the end of summer, with a new lab planned by privately run Dynacare, the capacity will increase to 3,000 daily, the premier said. The price tag for Dynacare's work will be less than $10 million, he added.
Health officials said there were no new COVID-19 cases to report Tuesday, leaving the total to date at 272 confirmed and probable cases. With more people recovering from the novel coronavirus, the number of active cases dropped to 57.
Pallister expects the pandemic to be a $5-billion hit to the provincial budget this year — a combination of increased health spending and decreased tax revenues from a struggling economy.
Two weeks ago, the government said it wanted public-sector workers who are not on the front lines of health care and other key services to accept reduced work weeks or layoffs. Government departments, Crown corporations and universities were asked to draw up plans for three scenarios of temporary workforce reductions — 10 per cent, 20 per cent and 30 per cent.
Pallister said Tuesday that the end result will be smaller.
"I don't expect it to be anywhere near 10 per cent impact. The fact of the matter is, it'll be less than that, and it will vary by department," he said.
Some temporary layoffs have already taken place. Manitoba Liquor and Lotteries has let people go due to the closure of casinos and video lottery terminal lounges under public-health orders.
The Manitoba Government and General Employees Union said it was still waiting to hear which other workers might be affected.
"When they say the devil's in the details, that's what we're looking for," union president Michelle Gawronsky said.
"Unfortunately, we're still left in the dark."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 28, 2020