Ontario's essential industries to receive six times more COVID-19 rapid tests than school system
A box of coronavirus tests are ready for use in the student health center on campus at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University in Greensboro, N.C., Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2021. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
Published Friday, February 12, 2021 7:59AM EST
Last Updated Friday, February 12, 2021 1:07PM EST
The Ford government has allocated essential businesses access to six times more rapid COVID-19 tests than they plan to set aside for the province’s school system as it completes its return to in-person learning.
In the next few months, essential businesses including Bombardier Aviation, Ellis Don Construction and Ontario Power Generation will begin to receive 300,000 one-time use rapid tests per week, while up to 50,000 each week will be set aside for use in the school system.
Officials said the difference is explained by the fact that symptomatic students and teachers will be referred to the province’s existing COVID-19 assessment centres, as they have always been, with rapid tests to be used as a fill-in-the gap or “adjunct” measure.
A spokesperson from Health Minister Christine Elliott’s office reiterated to CP24 that rapid tests are meant only to support full PCR testing in schools, not replace them.
They said the rapid tests would sent to areas with high community transmission, alongside mobile screening teams, as well as schools where widespread outbreaks are suspected to screen asymptomatic students and staff.
Rapid tests are not something planned to be administered at all of the province’s 4,828 public schools, officials said.
But they also suggested that in the coming months, all workers at select essential businesses may be offered as many as two rapid tests each week, whether they display symptoms or not.
Premier Doug Ford had also previously said that the businesses are paying out of pocket – about $6 – for each of the rapid tests they use.
But on Friday, he said the rapid tests would be free for businesses and that 1,000 firms have already applied to use them.
Also included in their plan was a program to distribute more than 400,000 rapid tests per week for staff, residents and caregivers at long-term care and retirement homes.
Details of the deployment of rapid tests came in a Friday morning technical briefing for media outlets, including a briefing document.
The province’s official statements about the rapid test rollout makes no mention of the amount of rapid tests schools are set to receive.
School board have been given 4,000 rapid tests to date, to support testing in areas where turnaround times are higher than normal.
Rapid asymptomatic testing was specifically mentioned by Education Minister Stephen Lecce as an additional layer of protection schools would have access to for their return to in-person learning after the second wave.
There are two million students and more than 200,000 teachers and related staff in Ontario.
"It is imperative that we help maintain essential manufacturers and supply chains that keep clean water flowing, keep food on the table and keep the lights on," Economic Development Minister Vic Fedeli said in a statement issued Friday. "Rapid testing for employees in our most at-risk and critical industries is essential for the safety of Ontario's workforce and for the swift recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic."
The provincial lab network can now reliably process up to 100,000 full PCR test specimens in the course of a weekday, officials said Friday, and they now have more than six million rapid PCR and antigen test kits at their disposal.
But the emergence of more highly-infectious coronavirus variants B.1.1.7, B.1.351 and P.1 in the province has forced officials to invest in new forms of testing to identify those cases in a bid to slow their spread and keep them out of vulnerable settings such as long-term care homes.
The province is now using a modified PCR test to screen every positive case for the presence of a variant, and significantly ramping up its ability to complete whole genomic sequencing on suspect variant cases to definitively determine their exact origin.
Starting soon, the provincial lab network will attempt to identify variant of concern cases in as little as 24 hours, with public reporting of results daily while further examination continues to identify exactly which of the three major variants each case is.
In recent weeks it has taken seven days or longer for a positive variant case to be tested, screened and then sequenced through whole genomic sequencing.
Officials said Ontario is the first jurisdiction in North America to screen all positive tests for the presence of variants.
Public health units are also being instructed to accelerate case and contact management efforts in cases where a variant of concern may be involved.
Ontario’s modellers have said twice that the B.1.1.7 variant that first appeared in the United Kingdom will be the dominant strain in the province by March.
It is approximately 50 per cent more transmissible than earlier strains of the virus.