Ontario will send rapid tests to hard-hit regions amid rising virus school shutdowns

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TORONTO — Ontario is looking to send rapid tests to regions seeing high numbers of COVID-19 cases in schools, but the province's top doctor says they won't be distributed to all areas even as virus-related school dismissals rise.

Dr. Kieran Moore made the comments Thursday as 16 schools in total were reported closed due to COVID-19 and the opposition called for rapid tests to go to all students as a safety measure.

Moore said the province was in "active discussions" with northern health units in Algoma, Sudbury and Timiskaming, as well as "other areas" dealing with rising cases about sending more rapid tests to catch additional infections.

"That capacity is there, the dialogue is ongoing in the highest risk areas of this province," Moore said during a pandemic briefing. "We have the ability to provide rapid tests and enhanced testing in any region of this province that is experiencing increased activity."

Ontario already plans to send rapid test kits home with all students over the December holidays and that will go ahead as the province responds to local virus surges, Moore said.

Opposition politicians said all Ontario students should get rapid tests sooner amid the increased outbreaks and school closures.

Of the 16 closures reported Thursday, Education Minister Stephen Lecce said five were closed for "operational reasons" not related to a specific outbreak. That might mean a high number of students or staff were isolating due to exposures, but the cases aren't known to be linked, a spokeswoman later clarified.

The rest of the closures were linked to outbreaks.

Nearly 700 of the province's 4,844 schools – or just over 14 per cent – had a reported COVID-19 case.

Lecce maintained during a question period debate in the legislature that schools are safe, pointing to other testing initiatives and hiring more staff.

"The government has worked in partnership with the Chief Medical Officer of health to ensure our schools remain open and safe," he said. "We'll continue to do whatever it takes to achieve that objective."

Bus routes and class cohorts have been disrupted for weeks in Sudbury as the health unit contends with an unprecedented rise in cases. But school closures were also happening outside the virus-stricken regions in the province's north and southwest.

Toronto Public Health said three schools had been dismissed as of Thursday and COVID-19 investigations were ongoing in 89 schools and 21 child care settings.

Public health in Waterloo Region ordered a school closed on Wednesday for the first time since in-class learning resumed in September, after 19 virus cases were detected at the Kitchener, Ont., Catholic school and multiple class cohorts were dismissed. The health unit said it was recommending rapid antigen testing as students returned to school after the 10 days.

Another school in Ottawa was to be closed "until further notice" due to COVID-19, the city's Catholic board said Wednesday.

In light of the school closures, Ontario Green Leader Mike Schreiner called on the government to make rapid tests free and accessible now until the end of the school year, rather than wait for the December holiday break as planned.

The Opposition New Democrats also raised the issue in the legislature on Thursday, saying rapid tests should have been available earlier and asked for action to stop the spike in school cases.

"Those rapid tests should have been in schools and parents' hands in September," NDP legislator Rima Berns-McGown said, also calling for haste on vaccination efforts for five-to-11-year-olds, which began this week.

"This spike in cases and in closures shows just how important it is for us to get vaccines into as many kids’ arms as soon as humanly possible."

Moore pointed to vaccinations starting for the elementary school-aged kids as a "silver lining" to the current outbreak situation. He said immunizations would help reduce outbreaks in school settings, something he said was anticipated in the colder months of the year.

"This is a nasty, aggressive virus, this is the time of year where we expect an increase, and sadly, yes, we'll see increased cases in school settings, especially the elementary where they haven't had the benefit of vaccine," he said.

He said reducing COVID-19 risk in schools should be a "key motivator" for parents considering getting their kids immunized, and said the province anticipates seeing cases drop in the new year after more kids have received second doses.

"I do hope that all parents consider getting their child vaccinated" he said. "It really should help limit the spread in the elementary school setting."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 25, 2021.

Holly McKenzie-Sutter, The Canadian Press

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