Millions of rapid COVID-19 tests still unused, according to federal data

·3 min read
Data from the federal government say the number of rapid tests used is just over 1.3 million — meaning more than 6 million tests are potentially sitting idle.  (CBC / Radio-Canada - image credit)
Data from the federal government say the number of rapid tests used is just over 1.3 million — meaning more than 6 million tests are potentially sitting idle. (CBC / Radio-Canada - image credit)

While experts have been calling on the province to ramp up its use of rapid COVID-19 tests, the province has said that millions of these tests have been deployed.

But federal data shows that only a small fraction have actually been used.

As of April 23, more than 7.4 million rapid antigen tests have been deployed across a number of sectors, including long-term care and retirement homes, congregate care settings, Indigenous communities, schools and workplaces, the Ministry of Health said in an emailed statement.

When asked how many tests have been given, the ministry did not answer, but said it's their expectation that rapid tests are used once they've been deployed.

Data from the federal government, however, say the number of rapid tests used is just over 1.3 million — meaning more than 6 million tests are potentially sitting idle.

"It's definitely a missed opportunity," said Dr. Kashif Pirzada, an emergency physician in Peel Region.

Pirzada said the potential of rapid antigen testing is huge and shouldn't be discounted as an effective intervention to stunt the spread of the virus, especially in workplaces.

"The great thing about rapid tests is that they catch people at their most infectious," he said.

"Often people don't even have symptoms and if you do it as a general screening … you're going to pick up cases that you didn't pick up before."

Rapid testing could help hot spots areas

Pirzada says he's seeing an increasing number of families come into the emergency room with COVID-19 — all with the same story.

"They're there in their 30s to 50s. They work in a big warehouse, big factory, or their relatives do," he said.

Pirzada added that rapid testing would be especially effective in hot spot regions like Peel where outbreaks at large workplaces are occurring, like at Amazon fulfilment centres in Brampton.

While Peel Region's Associate Medical Officer of Health Dr. Gayane Hovhannisyan said in an emailed statement on Friday that rapid tests can help with early detection of COVID-19 in workplaces, she added that "Peel Public Health does not use rapid antigen tests for outbreak control purposes."

Hovhannisyan said rapid tests have lower accuracy than lab-processed polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests, which are recommended by the province for screening and surveillance purposes.

The province says they are working on introducing rapid tests to more worksites and will look at possibly mandating tests, particularly in workplaces in hotspot areas, if necessary.
The province says they are working on introducing rapid tests to more worksites and will look at possibly mandating tests, particularly in workplaces in hotspot areas, if necessary.(Robert Short/CBC)

Rapid COVID-19 tests are less reliable and more susceptible to false positives than the PCR tests, but provide results within 15 to 20 minutes.

The quick turnaround is why small businesses are also pushing for them, saying they could be used on employees and customers as an alternative to lockdowns.

"It's a tool that can be used to help reopen some businesses," said Ryan Mallough, director of provincial affairs for Ontario with the Canadian Federation of Independent Businesses (CFIB).

The CFIB represents around 38,000 businesses in Ontario. In a survey, two thirds of their members said they would consider using rapid tests to remain open.

"It really is going to be the difference between making it to the other side of this pandemic and ending the business permanently," said Mallough.

Transparency is important, physician says

To fully understand the potential benefit of rapid testing, Dr. Naheed Dosani, palliative care physician and health justice activist, says the province needs to be transparent with the number of rapid tests being given.

"It's really hard for us to tease out the effectiveness of an intervention if we don't know how much it is actually being used," he said.

The province says they are working on introducing rapid tests to more worksites and will look at possibly mandating tests, particularly in workplaces in hotspot areas, if necessary.