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An Abbott Laboratories Panbio COVID-19 Rapid Test device is displayed at a pop-up COVID-19 testing site on the Dalhousie University campus in Halifax on Nov. 25 2020.

Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press

Rapid testing kits received from Ottawa are finally being used in a British Columbia pilot project to screen care-home workers for the virus at a time when the province continues to suffer new outbreaks in those facilities.

While other provinces have already started using, or are at least testing, the kits distributed by the federal government, B.C. has been slow to adopt the latest innovation which could provide another layer of protection for vulnerable seniors in care homes.

Ottawa has distributed 7.4 million tests across the country, with more than 2.3 million to Ontario, more than 1.3 million to Quebec, and approximately 900,000 each to Alberta and B.C.

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Nova Scotia has been using its supply to offer free rapid tests for asymptomatic people, targeting partygoers at nightclubs and bars. In Ontario, the government has deployed the tests to provide faster results in regions of high transmission and in rural and remote areas. As well, it plans to use rapid tests to screen staff in long-term care homes and select workplaces. Quebec tests will be deployed in mid-December to the region north of Quebec City where community spread is raging. Saskatchewan is conducting rapid-test pilot programs for long-term care staff. Alberta is starting a pilot for “point of care” rapid testing trials this week, with plans to bring the tests to long-term care homes and shelters.

But most of B.C.’s stockpile remains in a government warehouse. To date, the province has received 131 Abbott ID Now machines and 51,000 test cartridges that work with those machines. That test is more sensitive than the Abbott Panbio antigen tests, which do not require a special machine to administer. B.C. has obtained roughly 575,000 of the Panbio tests. Neither are considered as reliable as the conventional tests currently in use, but they can provide results in minutes, rather than waiting a day or more for lab results.

According to the B.C. Centre for Disease Control, more than two-thirds of the COVID-related deaths in B.C. have been connected to a care-facility outbreak, and close to 90 per cent of those who have died were 70 years old or older. On Monday, there were almost 1,700 active COVID-19 cases in long-term care homes in the province, and three new outbreaks in long-term care homes were declared over the weekend.

Isobel Mackenzie, the B.C. Seniors Advocate, urged the government to move more quickly, especially in the hot spots in the lower mainland where COVID-19 cases have been soaring.

“The current protocols may not be sufficient. We have high degrees of community spread now, and COVID fatigue has set in. We need to be looking at these rapid tests as an added layer of protection,” she said in an interview Monday. She said seniors are not just at risk of being killed by COVID-19, but their mental and physical health is suffering because of the restrictions on visits that have been in place since last spring to protect them. “Rapid testing doesn’t eliminate the risk. It’s not a panacea. But it is an additional screening tool that we can use.”

B.C. Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry has been cautious about the rapid tests, arguing they are not as accurate as the lab tests that the province currently relies upon, especially for people who are not showing any symptoms. She stressed Monday that she is not convinced they will prove to be a practical screening tool and declined to say how long the pilot projects will run.

However, she acknowledged that the current screening protocols in long-term care homes are not enough to keep the virus at bay. “We are stepping up [screening], but we also have the 60,000 people who work in long-term care,” she said. “And everybody goes to work every day with the intent of doing their best to take care of people, and nobody intends to bring the virus in with them.”

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The B.C. trial is focusing on “the feasibility and value of these tests” in the Vancouver Coastal and Fraser Health regions, where there are roughly 15,000 long-term care workers who provide direct patient care.

Dr. Henry said the more critical development will be the distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine. She noted that there will be a limited amount of the vaccine available in B.C. in the coming weeks, but the priority will be for frontline health workers and seniors in care homes.

We have a weekly Western Canada newsletter written by our B.C. and Alberta bureau chiefs, providing a comprehensive package of the news you need to know about the region and its place in the issues facing Canada. Sign up today.

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