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UBC School of Nursing students before administering rapid tests.

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Snacks, prizes – and a swift swab up the nose – are being offered to students living on campus at the University of British Columbia in a trial to screen for COVID-19 through a rapid testing program launched on Tuesday.

The province is participating in the pilot to determine if it is helpful as a screening tool in a younger population who live in congregate housing. Some of the worst COVID-19 outbreaks in recent weeks have been at destination ski resorts, where the spread of the virus has been traced to predominantly young workers who live and socialize in close quarters.

The UBC program booked fewer than 100 tests on Tuesday, to provide UBC School of Nursing students time to get up to speed on administering the rapid tests under the supervision of a nurse supervisor. Organizers expect to be able to conduct 222 tests daily for the duration of the trial.

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Testing through the pilot project is being offered to all students and staff who live and work in first-year residence at UBC, and is being promoted by a page on the UBC website featuring comic-style graphics showing a gloved hand knocking out the virus. Students are offered a chance to win prizes such as high-end headphones if they choose to be tested, and provided with “tasty snacks” while they wait for results. Participants will be asked to get tested one to three times each week until April 8.

“It is a voluntary initiative that will evaluate the use of rapid tests, but more importantly will help make first-year residence safer by identifying positive cases and interrupting possible chains of transmission,” Rae Ann Aldridge, executive director of Safety and Risk Services at UBC, said in a statement.

B.C.’s COVID-19 lab testing regime has focused on people who have symptoms of the virus. However, an infected person can be shedding the virus before they develop symptoms – and many people with COVID-19 do not develop symptoms at all.

B.C. has had more than 1.3 million rapid test kits provided by Ottawa, but has been slow to use them. Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry has approved their use in settings such as remote communities where lab test results can be slow to process, and in the Downtown Eastside, where residents can be hard to contact. She also said the tests have helped detect outbreaks in corrections facilities.

Dr. Henry has however rejected calls to use rapid tests widely to screen for COVID-19 in long-term care facilities. “This whole idea that you could just take a nasal pharyngeal swab into the back of somebody’s brain every day, and that would protect us in long-term care, is just not practical,” she said.

The rapid tests are not as reliable as lab testing, but they are a tool for surveillance that can detect outbreaks of the virus in a community quickly. Nova Scotia is training citizens to administer the tests to maximize flexibility, and to win broader community acceptance for testing.

UBC is using the BD Veritor Plus System, recently approved by Health Canada, as a point-of-care antigen screening test that delivers results in about 15 minutes. The test kits were provided by the B.C. government as part of a research project. The test requires a mid-nasal swab to collect patient samples. Anyone who tests positive will be offered a second, more rigorous diagnostic test on site, conducted by Vancouver Coastal Health.

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Organizers are assuring those who take part in the UBC program that anyone who tests positive for the virus will be provided with isolation accommodation on campus at no extra cost. A negative test, the organizers add, does not negate the need to continue with safety protocols such as wearing masks and maintaining physical distance.

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