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The federal government continues to ship rapid test kits for COVID-19 to British Columbia, even as the province’s public-health officials remain dubious about the accuracy of the screening devices. More than 1.3 million test kits have been delivered to B.C. as part of a national effort to reduce the spread of COVID-19, but the province maintains the tests are too labour-intensive to use in long-term care homes, where the pandemic has exacted the highest toll.

Health Canada’s expert advisory panel has concluded that the tests can be used to help combat the second wave of infections in high-risk situations, including long-term care homes. As well, Nova Scotia and Alberta have used the tests to identify cases that health officials there say they wouldn’t have found otherwise.

Seniors in long-term care account for the vast majority of COVID-19 deaths in British Columbia, and care-home operators, as well as the B.C. Seniors Advocate, have called for rapid testing to help screen visitors and workers who have not yet received the vaccine.

Dr. Bonnie Henry, the Provincial Health Officer, said Monday the province’s pilot projects in long-term care have found that rapid tests are not effective. “It is a tool that takes a lot of energy and a lot of human-resource time,” she told reporters.

“Where we have found them to be useful is in some more remote communities,” where the turnaround time for lab tests is too long, she said. “The other place that we’re using them quite successfully is in admissions or remands to our correctional facilities because it’s important to have an understanding rapidly, whether that person coming in, has [COVID-19].”

In a report published this month, Health Canada’s COVID-19 Testing and Screening Expert Advisory Panel recommended the use of rapid testing in high-risk settings, including long-term care, to help manage the “second wave” of the pandemic while the vaccine roll-out advances. The report notes that up to 40 per cent of individuals infected with COVID-19 may have no symptoms and may infect others. While the rapid tests are less sensitive compared with lab-based tests, the panel noted, “the immediate availability of results enables timely action.”

The rapid tests are being used across the country in different ways.

Nova Scotia has used rapid tests in pop-up clinics to test individuals who have no symptoms, specifically targeting those who had attended bars and restaurants. Of 5,500 people who received a rapid test in an early trial, 21 positive cases were detected. Those positive results were confirmed using lab testing.

Alberta is expanding the use of its rapid testing program, after trials of almost 12,000 rapid tests that identified 1,339 positive cases. That province is focusing most of its effort on people who have COVID-19 symptoms, to speed up assessments.

“We are currently only using rapid point-of-care testing on individuals who are within the first seven days of showing symptoms of COVID-19. We are not using it for screening asymptomatic individuals,” said Kerry Williamson, a spokesperson for Alberta Health Services. “Rapid point-of-care testing is most effective when used on patients who are within the first week of showing symptoms of COVID-19, helping us to more quickly identify and manage positive cases in the community, especially in more rural and remote locations.”

Terry Lake, chief executive of the BC Care Providers Association, said Monday the province should open up its growing stockpile of test kits to screen workers and visitors who have not been vaccinated, saying the tests may not be perfect, but they could help prevent the spread of COVID-19 among vulnerable seniors. There are currently 48 active COVID-19 outbreaks in long-term care facilities and group homes in B.C., underscoring that current health precautions are not entirely effective in keeping COVID-19 out.

Mr. Lake said his organization has tried repeatedly to meet with Dr. Henry to discuss how the tests could be utilized. “She does not engage with the senior care sector, almost at all, so it’s hard to understand her objections,” he said. He said residents have endured almost a year of extreme isolation because of COVID-19 and rapid testing could allow more leeway to allow visitors back in to see their loved ones.

“It’s baffling to me. This is our most vulnerable setting, and we’re separating families cruelly from their loved ones in care,” he said.

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