Ford government orders agencies to stop giving parents, community groups rapid COVID-19 tests
Published Wednesday, September 29, 2021 12:46PM EDT
Last Updated Wednesday, September 29, 2021 4:46PM EDT
Ontario’s Ministry of Health has ordered several agencies to stop supplying rapid antigen COVID-19 tests to parents, as a growing number of them sought the tests to create their own ad-hoc surveillance testing programs in schools.
Officials with two agencies tasked with distributing rapid tests from the federally-procured stockpile to the public told CP24 they were ordered by the Ministry of Health to stop distributing the tests to parents, and restrict distribution of the tests to small businesses only.
A parent in Toronto’s Deer Park neighbourhood told CP24 they applied to the Toronto Region Board of Trade rapid test distribution program and were denied twice this week.
A denial from the board, sent on Monday, stated “parent/volunteer groups do not fall within the eligibility requirements for this program and as such, your appointment has been cancelled.”
A number of other parent groups have previously used the board’s online portal to accessthe testing supplies used to develop their do-it-yourself surveillance programs this school year.
“As we’ve been asked to do by the government, when it is clear that a request is from an organization that does not fit the (small and medium enterprise) category, we are informing them that they are ineligible and directing them to the appropriate provincial channel for further supports,” Toronto Region Board of Trade spokesperson Lindsay Broadhead told CP24 on Wednesday.
An official with the Ontario Chamber of Commerce, which oversees boards of trade who distribute rapid tests, told CP24 nothing had changed and parents and community groups should have never been eligible to receive supplies of rapid tests.
They said they have had to deny an increasing number of requests for tests this month, an increasing number of which were ineligible under the terms of the program.
A representative with the StaySafe program at Communitech in Kitchener said the Ministry of Health contacted them in the past 48 hours and ordered them not to supply COVID-19 rapid tests to their “ambassadors,” roughly 4,000 parents and other individuals who were previously allowed to sign up and receive regular supplies of test kits, no questions asked.
All of them will now be shut out. Communitech and the Stay Safe program distributes the tests on behalf of local chambers of commerce and all three levels of government.
A memo sent to those who applied for tests at Communitech said their volunteers misunderstood the purpose of the program.
"Some of the communications you received from StaySafe, as Ambassadors, clearly implied that general community group use was a key part of the Ambassador program. We want to apologize for this - that was our fault, not yours. Our program volunteers work so hard to keep you updated and supplied - this was an honest mistake by volunteers who were not fully aware of the program parameters."
Communitech told CTV News Toronto all existing orders for rapid tests will still be filled.
Lisa Wise-Milestone, who runs a surveillance program at Regal Road Public School using tests from the Toronto Region Board of Trade, said she had not yet been told she was not going to be receiving any more tests but several of her peers had recently been told no.
“The parents in my group at my school, they are going to be disappointed when they hear – it’s the one extra thing we could do as parents, and they’ve taken it away from us,” she told CP24.
She said the distinction to exclude schools for the benefit of workplaces is absurd, given that elementary school age children cannot yet be vaccinated and everyone else can.
“We have an identified target population now, in the under 12s, and yet they’re giving us no resources, the system is very broken.”
Her only alternative, to carpool with other parents to pick up tests from Communitech in Kitchener, is also gone.
Unvaccinated education workers, and adult workers regardless of vaccination status in a number of business sectors remain eligible for asymptomatic COVID-19 rapid surveillance testing in the province.
Asymptomatic children have few free avenues to seek COVID-19 testing, unless they attend high school in one of 13 Ontario school boards or are identified as a contact of a previously identified case.
Both the opposition NDP and Liberals have asked the Ford government this week to expand, not curtail access to rapid tests in schools.
When asked last week, Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Kieran Moore urged parents not to “go ahead” of government and set up surveillance COVID-19 testing programs at schools, and several local school boards have distanced themselves from the initiatives.
On Wednesday, Ontario’s publicly-funded school boards reported 170 new school-related cases of COVID-19, with 159 cases found in students and 11 in staff members.
CP24 has identified at least six such parent-run rapid COVID-19 surveillance testing programs operating around the province as of last week, with dozens more in development.
Ministry of Health spokesperson Alexandra Hilkene told CP24 the rapid test programs set up by the province were only ever meant to support businesses and parents should not have received tests through the program.
“This is a program designed with the specific purpose of protecting workers as businesses safely reopen and stay open. No additional restrictions have been placed on this program. Rather, we expect agencies to adhere to program parameters as with any government program.”
She said the government is working on a testing program to target schools in areas with higher than average community spread.
“As Dr. Moore has said repeatedly, widespread asymptomatic surveillance testing in schools is not recommended as it is not an effective tool. Rather it should be used in specific regions where the rate of COVID is higher, which is exactly what the government is working on doing.”
Moore added on Wednesday afternoon that the existing programs were set up specifically for businesses and parents should have never been allowed to receive tests from them.
“I do believe the past program was for businesses - its application in the school system wasn’t following the rules used for that program.”
He defended the growth of cases in schools this fall, which has far outpaced last September, as most epidemiologists predicted because of the Delta variant.
“The ability to limit outbreaks in these cohorts to four or less I think is brilliant given the high transmissibility of Delta,” he said.
Moore said the province is developing two new efforts to conduct asymptomatic surveillance testing in high-risk communities as well as a plan to deploy rapid tests to schools after an outbreak is declared.
“I think you will hear news about a surveillance strategy and a rapid response outbreak strategy very soon.”
Public Health Ontario (PHO) also weighed in earlier this month, with an evidence brief that said at-home asymptomatic surveillance testing would add “uncertain” safety benefits for schools outside of periods with high community transmission.
But the same document cited major successes with regular surveillance testing in several U.S. states and European countries, saying it demonstrated reduced incidence of cases with school-age children.
PHO also warned implementing surveillance testing in all public schools would be costly and labour intensive.
Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca said Wednesday that the rapid antigen tests would create significant peace of mind for parents.
“We have encountered some difficulties at my daughter’s school and my nephew’s school here in Vaughan,” he said.
“I really do believe that having rapid tests available would help keep our kids and our education workers and our families safer, but also it would have gone a long way in giving moms and dads peace of mind.”
NDP education critic Marit Stiles issued a statement saying parents chose to build do-it-yourself screening programs because no other option was made available to them.
“Today’s decision by Doug Ford to block access to rapid tests for students is a crushing blow to parents and a threat to classroom safety,” she said. “Parents across the province have stepped up to protect their kids because Doug Ford failed to act. He never should have put families in this terrible position in the first place.”