Manitoba is supplying schools in First Nations with more than 100,000 rapid tests so families can monitor elementary students for SARS‑CoV‑2 infection in early 2022 before classes resume after the holidays.
The province has secured 22,000 new kits, each of which contains five rapid antigen tests, that will be distributed to 63 K-6 schools located both on-reserve and elsewhere in the north, officials announced Friday.
The government indicated it will broaden distribution to public elementary schools across Manitoba if it is able to procure additional kits from the federal government either before or during the upcoming break scheduled for Dec. 22 until Jan. 6.
“We advocate for anything that provides confirmation of keeping our children healthy and safe during this pandemic,” said Charles Cochrane, executive director of the Manitoba First Nations Education Resource Centre.
A total of 57 band-operated buildings and six schools run by the Frontier School Division will receive the initial 110,000 COVID-19 tests.
Cochrane said he anticipates there will be challenges with the rollout, including parent reluctance to participate because of how quickly the initiative is unfolding and uncertainty around using tests.
Officials have stated school staff will distribute informational packages that explain how-to properly administer the devices alongside the kits.
During a technical briefing with reporters Friday, government spokespeople said the idea is to give families kits to use in the lead-up to the first day back at school in 2022 to address teacher and parent anxieties about a potential surge in cases.
The use of these tests — which have a sensitivity of around 80 per cent, according to manufacturer BTNX — is not being mandated. There will also be no requirements around reporting results.
Should a family receive a positive result, they are encouraged to seek follow-up PCR testing to confirm the result and follow public health orders.
Children are being targeted because the majority of recent school cases and outbreaks have been among students aged 11 and younger — a cohort that only recently became eligible for COVID-19 vaccines.
A spokesperson said initial supply is being targeted to First Nation schools because the province recognizes Indigenous communities experience a higher rate of vulnerability related to the pandemic.
Manitoba is currently waiting on confirmation of another delivery of 22,000 kits for student use, according to a provincial spokesperson, who noted decisions about where those go will be based on factors such as community vulnerability, vaccine uptake, and ease of delivery.
The province could not provide an estimate Friday for when it may receive more of these five-pack test kits or any other orders.
The province has ordered an additional 250,000 of the above kits from Ottawa, 750,000 of another type of kit, and another 19.8 million rapid tests to be delivered between now and the end of March.
Even if the next shipment arrives in a timely manner, there won’t be enough supply to provide as much as half of the population of elementary schoolers with a kit for winter vacation. There are approximately 94,000 students enrolled in those grades in both public and division-administered First Nations schools in Manitoba.
“It is absolutely imperative that we get these out into the hands of the most vulnerable folks in Manitoba, and that absolutely includes the Indigenous and racialized folks in our province, but announcing it the last few days of school is just unconscionable… This is just a complete lack of planning and another Hail Mary pass,” said Lauren Hope, a founding member of Safe September MB, a group that advocates for increased public health measures in schools.
Hope said she is frustrated the province has given unvaccinated workers access to free rapid tests for months and other provinces have already figured out how to supply members of the public with free tests.
According to a provincial spokesperson, manufacturers have only recently been packaging rapid tests in small kits that are best suited for distribution to families.
The province had previously been receiving shipments of kits containing 25 to 30 tests each, which the spokesperson said are ideal for businesses, health-care settings and other facilities that require high-volume testing.
Maggie Macintosh , Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Winnipeg Free Press