TORONTO — Ontario students will be sent home for the December break with five rapid antigen COVID-19 tests each as part of the province's plan to ramp up testing over the holidays.
The plan to distribute 11 million tests over the next month is part of the province's winter virus testing strategy, which includes pop-ups in busy shopping areas and the controversial planned expansion of symptomatic testing to more than 1,000 pharmacies.
Education Minister Stephen Lecce said the government decided to offer the rapid tests out of an "abundance of caution" based on increased virus transmission that happened over the holidays in 2020.
"We thought it would be prudent to provide five rapid test kits to children, all children in Ontario, really premised on the objective of getting them back in January," Lecce told reporters at a Toronto press conference on Thursday.
The provincial government spent $50 million to buy the tests from private company BTNX. Boxes of five tests each will go to students at all publicly funded schools, and officials said offers have been made to First Nations schools.
Those who choose to participate in the voluntary program will be instructed to take tests every three to four days over the holiday break beginning Dec. 23.
Officials said more information is to come about how students can record their results, but participation won't be a requirement to return to school in January.
Families across the province have sought access to rapid tests throughout the pandemic. Tests are available in areas of high transmission for students with COVID-19 symptoms or considered a close contact of a confirmed case, but they haven't been made available to all students before the current holiday plan.
This fall, parent groups were frustrated when the province excluded them from a rapid test program intended for businesses, after some of them started distributing the tests to kids. At the time, chief medical officer of health Dr. Kieran Moore said widespread asymptomatic testing wasn't necessary.
On Thursday, Moore said things have changed because people will be socializing indoors more over the holidays and over the colder months, and because cases have been rising in the province, with 711 cases reported on Thursday.
"We do think it's evidence-based, that it's risk-based, and in many communities, it's quite proportionate to the risk at present," Moore said.
Lecce said the government will follow the advice of the province's top doctor and other experts on best practices for testing.
The government also announced Thursday that it was planning pop-up testing clinics in high-traffic public spaces like malls, holiday markets and retail stores so people can be tested during the busy holiday season.
Locations are being finalized and officials said they will be determined by looking at areas deemed high risk, based on lower vaccination rates and higher rates of transmission and hospitalization from the illness. Selected settings will be places where proof of vaccination isn't currently required.
Critics said the province acted too late to offer rapid testing for students.
Marit Stiles, education critic for the Opposition New Democrats, said the party supports rapid tests for students but they should have been offered "12 to 18 months ago." She also expressed doubt that the plan would be ready before the December break, because boards don't already have the tests.
"I have no confidence that the government is actually going to be able to roll this plan out in time for the holidays, and that's really disappointing," she said.
The Green Party of Ontario said tests should be made available to all students until the end of June, and leader Mike Schreiner said the holiday-limited plan is "just another example of how this government is always acting too late" on its pandemic response.
There were also concerns raised about the government's plan to offer COVID-19 testing to symptomatic people at up to 1,300 pharmacy sites.
Starting Thursday, up to 600 pharmacies were to begin training to offer COVID-19 testing to everyone eligible, including people with symptoms. Officials said those initial sites could start performing tests within a few days.
Some participating sites might offer outdoor or drive-in options, as well as in-store swabs and the option to pick up tests to do at home. Stores must be able to follow specific infection prevention and control measures such as having a separate testing area in order to participate.
Some experts told The Canadian Press this week that the plan poses exposure and transmission risks for regular customers who may cross paths with a symptomatic person.
Moore said Thursday that he understands people's concerns, but maintained that the plan is safe.
"They may not have had the conversations that we've had with our pharmacy partners," he said. "I have complete confidence that they do it safely, they'll follow the right precautions."
He also said the pharmacy tests would offer access to more people and lessen the burden on other parts of the health system.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 18, 2021.
Holly McKenzie-Sutter, The Canadian Press