WINNIPEG -- A trio of personal care homes in Manitoba are getting an added layer of protection in the fight against COVID-19.

Three sites, including Winnipeg’s Deer Lodge Centre, are being sent Abbott Panbio COVID-19 antigen tests.

“It’s a rapid test that we get the results back in 20 minutes,” said Kevin Scott, chief operating officer at Deer Lodge Centre. “It’s really that extra measure for us to be able to keep our patients and residents safe.”

The goal is to stop COVID from unknowingly infiltrating these highly vulnerable places and infecting the people who call them home.

Surveillance testing means looking for the virus in certain populations, in this case care home workers. With rapid tests, results still need to be confirmed with conventional testing and they work best when large amounts of virus are present.

But they are fast and are being welcomed by some long term care homes, a sector that’s been hit hard by COVID-19.

As of Friday there were 27 active outbreaks at Winnipeg’s 39 long term care facilities. So far, Deer Lodge has avoided a major outbreak.

“We’ve had employee positive cases, within a personal care unit that is declared an outbreak,” said Scott. “We have not had a resident positive case here yet.”

The month-long pilot project is expected to officially begin Monday. The routine surveillance testing will be performed on care home staff who aren’t showing symptoms and have no known exposure to the virus.

“Following that trial run we’ll have some better information on if the test works, how well it works,” said Dr. Jazz Atwal, Manitoba’s acting deputy chief public health officer.

The tests will be conducted on-site by health professionals and are taken with a deep nasal swab.

Only care home employees are included in the pilot project. Staff who volunteer will be tested once a week. The move is being welcomed by the Manitoba Nurses’ Union.

“That’s how we get on top of an outbreak and stay on top of it,” said MNU president Darlene Jackson. “By ensuring that staff members who are positive whether they’re symptomatic or asymptomatic are not working with residents.”

Up to this point the province has only been doing asymptomatic testing in care homes when there’s been confirmed cases and outbreaks of COVID-19.

The rapid tests are faster but provide less accurate results which need to be confirmed by conventional testing. 

The Canadian Union of Public Employees Local 204, which represents some care home workers, is cautiously optimistic.

“Just because they have a negative doesn’t mean they’re a hundred per cent negative,” said Debbie Boissonneault, president of CUPE 204. “I think they just want to know they’re okay to go home, they’re not bringing something to work, they’re not bringing it home and I just don’t want us to let our guards down.”

Scott said many of Deer Lodge’s 1,000 employees, from nurses to cleaners and cooks, have expressed interest in taking the tests.

He said other measures and precautions will continue to play a key role in keeping COVID out of the care home.

“This is an additional way for us to do some additional screening of our employees for that extra safety measure,” Scott said.

In addition to Deer Lodge, the pilot project will be happening at Donwood Manor in Winnipeg and Country Meadows Personal Care Home in Neepawa, Man. 

Health Minister Cameron Friesen said in a news release the sites were chosen because of the size of their workforce and their proximity to lab testing sites.

It’s expected more rapid tests will be rolled out at other long term care facilities once the pilot project is finished.