“Rapid antigen tests may also offer a valuable alternative to individual isolation after exposure in schools. Implementation of voluntary ‘survival testing’ protocols, where exposed students remain in school as long as daily tests are negative for SARS-CoV-2, can help prevent damage to isolation without increasing transmission.”
The group’s latest advice comes as calls for rapid testing on a larger scale grow before the holiday season to help ensure safe gatherings.
Dr. Fahad Razak, author of Science Brief, said rapid tests have a role in school and workplace settings, but also before holiday gatherings.
“They are part of a strategy,” Razak said in an interview Thursday afternoon.
“So PCR tests still have a really important role, they are the confirming tests, they are the test you do when you think you are sick. But these rapid tests have an important role in allowing us to do as many daily activities as possible.”
Razak noted that people can get a quick test “right before the meeting”, and if everyone tests negative for COVID-19, they can be sure they go to a lower-risk environment.
Currently, some workplaces in the province offer express tests for their employees, and children in government-funded schools in Ontario will receive five tests to take home over the December break. The tests, which provide results in about 15 minutes, are also available for a fee at Ontario drugstores for travel or other asymptomatic purposes.
The tests are used more in some international jurisdictions, and more often in some Canadian provinces. Saskatchewan offers free express tests to the public for home use. Saskatchewan said on its website that sets of five tests are available on a first-come-first-served basis, with one set per household at this time.
In Nova Scotia, residents can get free quick tests from pop-up sites across the province for at-home testing. Lisa Barrett, the county’s rapid testing program leader, said in an interview Thursday that the county has been using some copies of home testing since late May this year.
While that isn’t the only factor in the province’s “relative success” in keeping cases low, it said it has distinguished Nova Scotia from other jurisdictions.
“The idea of an asymptomatic testing strategy, particularly when it is led by community members and the volunteers who perform or distribute the tests, is very different and, to my knowledge, is not routinely performed in most of Canada,” she said.
“I think one of the most effective things we’ve done here is to generate a culture of non-medical testing,” Barrett added, which she said has allowed residents to participate more actively in keeping themselves and others safe during the pandemic.
Razak said Nova Scotia has set a “brilliant example” that Ontario and the rest of the country can follow, noting that it should be “widespread” in high-risk places.
“I think there is an opportunity for the rest of Canada to do that as well and use these tests more broadly,” he said.
Ontario’s Scientific Advisory Schedule recommends that health officials implement rapid voluntary testing in places such as schools and workplaces in areas with high transmission rates, two to three times per week in some situations.
The recommendations focus on testing people who are not immunized or partially vaccinated, but say that in areas where daily new cases are approaching 175 per 100,000 people per week, they can be offered voluntarily to people who have also been vaccinated.
The brief does not examine the use of such tests to detect the new, potentially dangerous variant of Omicron, of which there are currently dozens of confirmed cases across the country.
Ontario expanded its Schools Rapid Testing Program in October to allow students to take regular exams over 10 days in cases where the school may face closure due to high cases. On Thursday, the government said about 170,000 rapid tests have been distributed to schools through its program targeting areas of high transmission and its public rapid testing efforts for schools.
The county is also planning a light holiday to offer pop-up tests at locations such as malls, holiday markets and transit hubs. Overall, Ontario has distributed more than 34 million rapid tests, the government says.
Quebec revealed its plan for school-age children Thursday, saying three million express tests will be distributed to preschool and primary school students. At-home tests are meant to be used to check if children who show symptoms of the virus are infected.
The announcement came at a time when the governorate recorded the highest number of daily infections since mid-January – 1,807 new infections.
Meanwhile, Ontario reported nearly 1,300 new cases Thursday, the highest toll since late May.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford has repeatedly defended his government’s approach to COVID-19 testing.
“We have a solid plan … focused on making sure we focus on getting people to testing stations, and getting people to get tested quickly,” Ford said Thursday in the legislature.
– Files by Danielle Edwards and Noshin Diafati
This report was first published by The Canadian Press on December 9, 2021.
Paola Loregio, Canadian Press