TORONTO — Ontario’s chief medical officer of health says rapid antigen tests will be sent to select schools at the highest risk of closure due to COVID-19 spread, saying a review of data “over the last couple of weeks” changed his mind about their value for unvaccinated students.
Starting next week, local public health units will be able to deploy rapid antigen test kits to schools deemed “high-risk” due to ongoing detection of cases, an outbreak, and the prevalence of COVID-19 in the surrounding community.
“If all of those boxes are getting ticked, through the medical officer of health, they will receive the testing at the (individual) school level – with support from the school board and local medical officer of health,” Moore said.
The announcement comes after groups of parents had organized surveillance testing for their schools on their own using the rapid test kits, but CP24 revealed the Ford government told two agencies to stop distributing them to anyone but businesses.
It also comes four weeks after CP24 reported that the province was shipping free rapid antigen test kits to private schools, a practice the Minister of Education’s office stopped after it was asked to comment on the policy.
The new policy will see students in a school where successive COVID-19 cases have been detected, who are not defined as high-risk close contacts, receive rapid testing as a means to determine whether they can remain at school.
It will also attempt to “catch” transmission not originally found during contact tracing.
Moore has said repeatedly that widespread asymptomatic surveillance testing in schools isn’t recommended because it isn’t an effective tool.
On Tuesday, he said he changed his mind because data from the U.S. and UK suggested rapid screening had a role in Ontario.
“Over the last several weeks – we’ve learned that there is a place for this kind of testing, especially in the face of the Delta (variant),” he said. “
Public Health Ontario and the Ontario COVID-19 Science Advisory Table both downplayed the efficacy of asymptomatic surveillance rapid testing of students in recent reports.
But neither body has commented on the ongoing use of asymptomatic surveillance testing in workplaces, many of which now contain high numbers of fully vaccinated people.
Moore said it was understanding that “less and less” rapid surveillance testing was occurring in businesses as more and more workers become fully vaccinated.
Outside of students attending high school in 13 public health units participating in a pilot program with the Ministry of Education, children in Ontario have no free options for asymptomatic testing.
Rapid antigen tests for students at pharmacies cost $40. Full PCR tests are only available to symptomatic children or those identified as a high-risk close contact of a confirmed case.
When asked why the government could not continue supplying rapid tests to parents setting up their own surveillance testing networks, Moore said there was little value in doing that in a low-risk setting.
“It all has to do with the features of the tests themselves – expert panels have reviewed sensitivity of test – when you apply these tests in a low risk setting, you’ll find more false positives than true positives,” he said, suggesting the false positives would lead to kids unnecessarily staying home or seeking PCR testing that is not needed.