Almost a third of the Yukon's first shipment of COVID-19 rapid tests from the federal government were given to mines.
The numbers, first obtained by the CBC on Jan. 10, have drawn surprise from critics who say the tests could have been used in public settings instead of or in addition to being shared with private companies.
However, health officials are justifying the decision, pointing out that mines are congregate living settings — and therefore considered at higher risk for COVID infections — often located near rural communities.
According to figures provided by the territory's Department of Health and Social Services, the Yukon initially received a total of 37,800 of rapid tests from Canada — approximately 18,600 Abbott ID Now tests, which must be administered by trained individuals, and 19,200 Abbott Panbio tests.
Four per cent of the ID Now tests and 59 per cent of the Panbio tests were provided to mines, department spokesperson Carlee Kerr said in the email.
That adds up to a total of about 11,994 rapid tests in total provided to mines, or just more than 31 per cent of the initial shipment to the Yukon.
The remaining Panbio tests are now part of the Yukon's take-home rapid test program, launched earlier this month.
The Silvertip mine, in northern British Columbia about 16 kilometres south of the Yukon border, received the largest share of the Panbio tests given to mines — 5,600. Victoria Gold, which operates in the Mayo-Keno area, received 4,475; Minto, in the Pelly Crossing-Carmacks area, received 750; and Alexco, which operates in the Keno area, received 425.
The Silvertip mine, in northern British Columbia about 16 kilometres south of the Yukon border, received the largest share of the tests — 5,600. Victoria Gold, which operates in the Mayo-Keno area, received 4,475; Minto, in the Pelly Crossing-Carmacks area, received 750; and Alexco, which operates in the Keno area, received 425.
Tests not officially approved by Health Canada for home use
Kerr wrote in a followup email that Panbio tests were used "by health professionals to support public health safety at mines prior to them being approved for at-home use," and that the federal government, in giving the Yukon its first shipment of rapid tests, had also provided "explicit direction that they not be used for home-based testing purposes."
Health Canada spokesperson Mark Johnson confirmed to the CBC in an email that the Panbio tests given to the Yukon "were point of care tests to be administered by a health or trained professional."
The tests, according to Johnson, remain classified as such, but he added that the decision to use tests "off label" — namely, using tests intended to be administered by trained workers as self-administered tests instead — "is a provincial and territorial prerogative."
That means the Panbio tests provided to mines, and that are now a part of the Yukon's take-home rapid test program, are still, officially, not approved by Health Canada for self-use, but the territorial government could have opted to distribute them to the public whenever it wanted to.
'Hugely disappointing thing'
Yukon NDP leader Kate White said it was "a hugely disappointing thing" to learn that rapid tests had been provided to mines before the public despite a demand for them — in particular, around Christmas, when educators and parents were "really grappling with how to get a handle on COVID within the school setting."
"We had a petition come forward that was signed by, you know, a wide spectrum of the community asking for access to rapid tests within school communities — at the time, we were told by the government, 'No,'" White said.
"The territorial government chose to support for-profit business as opposed to supporting Yukon families."
Yukon Conservation Society mining analyst Lewis Rifkind told the CBC that while he understood the logic of wanting to monitor COVID-19 at mines, he questioned the decision to not make rapid tests more widely available sooner.
"This meshes very closely with the socio-economic impacts of mining… and this is perhaps another example of mines getting a better deal than the rest of us in this particular case," he said.
"It's interesting that, you know, we're looking back in hindsight and questioning some of the decisions that might have been made in the heat of the moment, but once again, it brings up the thing, why does the mining industry get special care and attention compared with the rest of us?"
COVID situation was different, public health director says
The Yukon's director of public health, Cathy Stannard, told the CBC Jan. 14 that the decision to distribute tests to mines was made when there were few to no COVID-19 cases in the territory and before the vaccine-rollout began but mines were still bringing in workers from outside.
"If you can think about it in the context of where those mines are located in relation to our rural communities, the risk for importation was higher in the early days of the pandemic… it was much different than where we are now in the pandemic," she explained.
"And so the use of the Panbio, it wasn't necessarily looked at from a perspective of, 'This is a private company, therefore, they should be required to purchase [tests] and manage on their own.' We work in collaboration with the medical teams on-site… they are a part of our public health team in the territory."
While COVID-19 has been in the spotlight, Stannard said territorial health authorities regularly work with mines to manage other public health concerns, including influenza and gastrointestinal outbreaks.
Asked why rapid tests weren't distributed to public settings like schools earlier, Stannard emphasized "the utility of testing at an individual level" was different earlier on in the pandemic.
In an email, Kerr, the health department spokesperson, wrote that none of the 50,000 Roche rapid tests the Yukon recently received from the federal government have been shared with mines and that in total, the Yukon deployed more of its first shipment of rapid tests in healthcare and other high-risk settings than in mines.
Victoria Gold budgeting $1M for rapid tests
The owner of the Silvertip mine, the Chicago-headquartered company Coeur Mining, did not respond to a request for comment from Radio-Canada.
Victoria Gold CEO and president John McConnell, whose mine received the second-highest number of Panbio rapid tests from the Yukon government, said in an interview that he "can't comment" on whether he thought the government should be providing tests to mines.
However, he said Victoria Gold has been using rapid testing for more than a year as part of its COVID-19 management strategy and has purchased a number of its own tests — it's set aside approximately $1 million in its 2022 budget to buy rapid tests — as well as employed the services of a private clinic in Whitehorse for other kinds of testing.
He added that he wasn't aware the territorial government hadn't been distributing rapid tests to the public until recently.