The Quebec government has launched an online portal to track COVID-19 rapid test results, even as experts say there are limits to the accuracy of the data it provides.
Quebecers who log in to the portal are asked to enter their names, dates of birth and medicare numbers, as well as the dates the tests were taken, whether they had symptoms and whether the results were positive or negative.
While officials say the platform could help track the spread of the pandemic, Benoit Masse, a professor at Universite de Montreal’s School of Public Health, is doubtful it will prove useful.
Masse said initiatives that ask Canadians to voluntarily enter their information have not been successful, pointing to the failure of the federal COVID Alert contact tracing app. He said many Canadians are wary of handing over personal data and that an even greater number simply won’t bother.
“It’s too few people (who use it) and furthermore, it’s not people at random,” he said in an interview Wednesday. “The people who choose to report are clearly not representative of the population.”
David Juncker, professor of biomedical engineering at McGill University, is more hopeful. He said the platform could help “fill a gap in terms of data collection,” even though the results may not be fully accurate.
Some segments of the population might not use the platform, Juncker said, because they might not want to disclose their personal information or aren’t web-savvy. He said the province could do more to verify that the uploaded information is accurate, including by asking users to enter the model and lot number of the test they take and by allowing them to upload photos of the result.
Nevertheless, he said he believes the data could provide useful information about when and where cases are rising, especially given the scarcity of data on current case counts.
“I think by actually having the rapid tests and making them accessible and having a way of capturing those people testing, I think that adds another layer to our information system, while knowing that there will be some imperfections,” he said Wednesday in an interview.
Health Minister Christian Dubé said Tuesday the government-run platform would help the province better track COVID-19 transmission in the community, even as officials stressed that it is just one monitoring tool among several. Dubé said a primary goal of launching the portal was to get Quebecers used to the idea of testing themselves.
“We’re heading toward a world where we’ll have to live with the pandemic; we’ll have to test ourselves regularly,” he said.
The platform launch comes as governments look for new ways to track COVID-19 case counts after overwhelming demand forced them to limit PCR testing to high-priority groups, such as health workers, teachers, long-term care residents and people experiencing homelessness.
One study from earlier this month by Montreal-based research centre CIRANO estimated that real case numbers in Quebec were approximately five times higher than official figures.
Masse said that even though official PCR numbers never captured the full scope of the virus’s spread, it at least gave researchers an idea of infection levels.
Now that testing is restricted to priority groups, “we’re really blind, because we have nothing,” he said.
However, he said he believes that scientific methods such as probabilistic surveys or occasional random testing in the community would provide more accurate data than the rapid test platform.
When asked about the platform on Tuesday, Quebec Premier Francois Legault said the province uses different measures to track the evolution of the pandemic, including results of PCR tests administered to groups such as health-care workers, and overall trends in hospitalizations.
Dr. Luc Boileau, the province’s interim public health director, said the government is considering expanding access to PCR tests to new groups if overall demand goes down. However, he noted that tests are processed by lab staff who have “lots of other things to do” during the pandemic, and he encouraged the public to embrace the new platform so its results are as accurate as possible.
Meanwhile, the province’s COVID-19 death toll passed the 13,000 mark Wednesday, as health officials reported 73 more deaths linked to the novel coronavirus. COVID-19-related hospitalizations fell by eight, to 3,270, after 297 people were admitted to hospital and 305 left, while the number of patients in intensive care fell by 11, to 252.
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