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Monday, September 27, 2021

Don Martin: The provinces’ big fail as rapid testing moves at glacial speed

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OTTAWA —
A few steps from the soft drink and candy vending machines at Oakland’s International Airport is one that kicks out $200 COVID-19 rapid-testing kits.

This instant-access rollout is expanding by the day and will soon be in hundreds of locations across the United States.

In Canada, by starkly inexplicable contrast, more than 95 per cent of COVID-19 rapid test kits remain locked up in provincial government storage.

Canadian businesses anxious to test their employees are struggling to order the kits because federal contracts have claimed months of future production that could end up in warehouses.

What’s even more baffling, if that’s possible, is that one of the earliest test kits approved for use in the U.S, India, Europe, South America, New Zealand and Dominican Republic is made and exported from Vancouver. And Biocan Diagnostics is STILL waiting for Health Canada approval to sell its $25 test here along with more than 100 other applications.

The mind reels.

Welcome to the big fail in rapid testing for the coronavirus as provinces suppress a critical pandemic fighter without legitimate cause to deadly effect.

The test math is appalling.

Most provinces have used less than 10 per cent of the 20 million rapid test kits distributed by the federal government.

Some, like Alberta, have deployed less than two per cent of their supply. Hardest-hit Quebec is talking about closing the border to Ontario for March break without any valid public health explanation while all but 18,000 of its 2.6 million rapid test kits sit in a warehouse waiting to expire.

Yet in the U.S., hardly the gold standard of pandemic protocols, you can order a rapid test couriered to your door, be guided through the testing via video link and get the result in two days. Or you can be tested and wait at any doctor’s office for 15 minutes to get the result.

Why Canada rebuffs such cheap COVID-19 detection is voodoo political science.

Provincial premiers flick the on-off switch on lockdowns with knee-jerk regularity, somehow assuming the tightened restrictions that worked won’t produce a rising case count when they’re relaxed.

They fume and fret at vaccine delays which cannot be reversed, even with Justin Trudeau pleading on bended knee before the manufacturers.

And they feed into the prime minister’s fixation at slapping snowbirds without proper test results into hotel/detention centres despite any proof they’re actually a source of infection.

Canadians could reclaim this summer if rapid testing was a widely deployed gatekeeper pending full and effective herd vaccination in the fall.

As one senior public health physician confided to me: “We need rapid testing everywhere – at home, in the workplace, in schools, in long-term care. And they need to be available in every pharmacy, every clinic, every doctor’s office and at home. You should be able to buy it off the shelf.”

And yet we settle for pilot projects, like the commendable one run by the University of Toronto’s Creative Destruction Lab using a dozen companies to experiment with 15-minute antigen tests for employees.

Why such a limited rollout? The technology is proven, cheap and picks up at least 80 per cent of the infected cases, be they asymptomatic or symptomatic. All a pilot project does is delay a takeoff into the big picture.

The alleged medical concern has it that individuals given the right to self-diagnose COVID-19 infection will ignore a positive result and carry on as normal, leaving public health in the dark.

But, seriously, what kind of person would knowingly infect their friends or family after a positive result? Not one with a soul. And, besides, that’s probably the sort of person who would ignore a positive lab result and super spread themselves around Costco.

Now, about that 80 per cent rapid-test reliability rating. It takes about two clicks of a search engine to find studies showing that catching four out of five positives and immediately isolating and contact-tracing those cases beats having an infected person wandering the community for two days awaiting full lab results.

Besides, the annual flu shot usually falls far below 80 per cent effective immunity yet it receives full government advocacy and financial support.

Look, we are trapped in a wearying swirl of botched political communications, inconsistent no-mask, mask, double-mask advice, false hopes for a near-term normal and excessive precautions against low-risk causes.

But there’s widespread clarity in the merits of rapid testing, which the premiers are inexplicably ignoring, a deadly oversight that has received only a mild scolding from the feds to date.

If this insidious virus continues to mutate and complicate vaccination, the end game is rooted in widespread rapid testing more than waiting for a shot in the arm.

But there will be no rapid return to normal in 2021 if provinces keep stockpiling the test solution.

That’s the bottom line.

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