The Ontario government has told agencies tasked with distributing rapid antigen tests to stop supplying the tests to families, frustrating parents who volunteered their time to organize testing in their school communities as a screening tool to keep children safe.
Parents have accessed the tests through the local board of trade, or StaySafe, a program run out of the Kitchener-Waterloo region that provides taxpayer-funded rapid antigen tests to businesses and community groups. StaySafe is a collaboration between the province, startup incubator Communitech and local chambers of commerce, and have more than 4,200 “ambassadors,” who organize rapid testing for their businesses or in their communities.
The Ontario government informed agencies this week that rapid tests were to be used by workplaces, not community groups or parents. Asked why his government was prioritizing businesses – where workers are eligible for vaccination – over schools, Kieran Moore, the province’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, said on Wednesday that the program is intended for workplaces. He said that the province is reviewing an asymptomatic testing strategy in schools, especially in higher-risk areas, but did not indicate when it would be rolled out.
“The program was for businesses, and businesses alone. That program has strict eligibility criteria,” he said. “I’m very happy with our ability to limit outbreaks in the school setting at present.”
Quebec is deploying rapid tests to its elementary schools. The Nova Scotia government, meanwhile, said on Wednesday that it would distribute rapid tests to families with children in preschool to Grade 6, which could be used if a child has one mild symptom or if it is difficult for a family to access a COVID-19 testing site.
“We’ve heard from parents that they are concerned about their younger children who are not yet eligible to be vaccinated,” Becky Druhan, the province’s Minister of Education, said in a release. “These take-home tests are one way to provide families easier access to testing for children with symptoms and an added layer of protection on top of the core public-health measures that exist in our schools.”
Yona Nestel, a mother of two children attending Secord Elementary School in Toronto, said she and other parents organized a rapid-testing program a week ago, signing up more than 100 students.
“Not only is [Ontario Premier] Doug Ford doing nothing to support voluntary rapid-testing programs run by parents to protect kids and schools, but now he is actually trying to actively block parents’ efforts,” Ms. Nestel said on Wednesday.
StaySafe sent an e-mail to its ambassadors Wednesday, a copy of which was sent to The Globe and Mail, saying it would now focus its rapid-test supply on workplaces.
“Dr. Moore and the Province of Ontario have not yet embraced broad-based rapid testing for schools and community groups. So while we have the Province of Ontario’s support to distribute rapid-test kits to workplaces through the StaySafe program, that’s where the Ontario government’s comfort zone currently ends for rapid tests,” the e-mail stated.
The Toronto Board of Trade had noticed an uptick in demand for the tests, said Lindsay Broadhead, the board’s senior vice-president of communications. But she said that the program had always applied to businesses. “We’re not policing who requests these – we’re just trying to protect the small businesses and workers.”
The Ontario government requires two rapid tests a week for unvaccinated school staff, paid for by taxpayers, but it excludes students from such testing. Dr. Moore recently said that “there’s no additional value” to testing students because of low community infections, and that he was concerned about false positives.
Irfan Dhalla, a physician and vice-president with the Unity Health Toronto network of hospitals, said that it does not make sense why the government refuses to add an extra layer of safety in schools.
Projections released earlier this week from Ontario’s COVID-19 science and modelling advisory table showed that while the fourth wave of the virus is flattening in Ontario, cases among children under 12 are going up – particularly in those aged 5 to 11, who are not yet eligible for vaccination.
“Schools are the only remaining place where we actually want unvaccinated people to congregate. It makes much more sense to use rapid antigen tests in unvaccinated children than it does to use them in vaccinated adults,” Dr. Dhalla said.
Canada relies on polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests, which are conducted in labs. Rapid tests, however, can be done on the spot for screening of asymptomatic people in contexts such as schools or work sites. The tests use a short nasal swab and take 15 minutes for results. A PCR test would be administered to confirm a positive result.
Ontario kept schools closed to in-person learning more than any other province in the past academic year, and parents say their rapid-testing initiatives were a pro-active measure to keep children in classrooms, especially as the Delta variant threatens to disrupt a third year of schooling.
Ottawa parent Natasha Poushinsky was about to initiate a rapid-testing program with other parents for four schools in her area. She said she was frustrated and angry that the government stymied the efforts of parents to keep their children safe.
“We have rapid antigen tests that are in supply; we have program infrastructure and parent groups willing to take this up. It makes no sense to me,” she said. “This is [the government] saying it is acceptable that kids get sick, schools get shut down and family members also get sick.”
Amy Greer, an epidemiologist at the University of Guelph, connected families in her area with StaySafe’s rapid-testing program. She said she was disappointed that the program had not been extended to schools, especially on the same day that Nova Scotia said it would distribute rapid tests to families. “So the argument that it is not possible or that it doesn’t work seems out of step with what we see in other jurisdictions, including within Canada.”
She said families should have easier access to rapid tests, without having to pay $40 at a pharmacy.
“In the absence of the test result, an otherwise asymptomatic person would go about their usual routine and represents a risk to everyone they encounter during the day. In the presence of the test result, the vast majority of people will modify their behaviour, seek a PCR test and not engage in activities that would put others at risk while they wait on their confirmatory test result,” Dr. Greer said.
“There is really no downside in my mind.”
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