TORONTO — Ontario is rolling out a rapid COVID-19 testing program for schools in areas of the province with high transmission.
The chief medical officer of health said Tuesday that rapid testing can help identify cases and prevent transmission in schools and licensed child-care centres. The tests will only be used for unvaccinated, asymptomatic children who are not high-risk contacts of a case.
Dr. Kieran Moore said the decision to implement the program will be up to local medical officers of health and parents will be able to choose if their children participate in the screening.
"Where the risk of transmission is very high and vaccine coverage is low at the community or school level, this measure may provide an additional level of protection for schools and child care centres to minimize risk of outbreaks and potential closures," he said.
"Routine rapid antigen screening of fully vaccinated individuals and children is not currently recommended given the effectiveness of the COVID-19 vaccines as well as the risks posed by the disruption of learning as the result of false positive tests."
If a child receives a positive result from a rapid test, they will still need to get a lab-based PCR test to confirm it.
The announcement comes after groups of parents had organized surveillance testing for their schools using rapid test kits from a provincial program, but the government told agencies to stop distributing them to anyone but businesses.
Avery Swartz has been leading a parent volunteer group for rapid tests at her 10-year-old daughter's Toronto school.
She said she was glad to hear the government announce a rapid testing plan, but was disappointed that the strategy seems to take a "reactionary" approach.
"It's 'Let's wait until things are bad, let's wait until transmission is high, and then we'll use this screening tool.' That's not really logical," she said by phone on Tuesday.
"We have a bunch of these tests, why wouldn't we be using them to prevent case counts from getting to the high point in the first place? That's kind of the whole point of screening."
Swartz said she also had outstanding questions about the criteria the province is using to determine when to send rapid tests to a given school.
Moore said widespread asymptomatic surveillance testing in schools isn't recommended because it isn't an effective tool.
"When you apply these tests in a low-risk setting you’ll find that you get more false positives than true positives and you’ll send people for PCR testing as a result and they’ll be off school because they have to wait for the result," he said.
Ontario's opposition parties said making rapid testing available for schools should have happened at the beginning of the school year.
Moore framed the rapid testing as an additional tool to prevent the spread of COVID-19, while noting that the best defences include vaccinations and measures such as masking.
Education Minister Stephen Lecce has said that 80 per cent of school staff across the province have attested to being fully vaccinated. That is a bit under the provincewide rate of 81.5 per cent in the eligible population.
Moore called that surprising.
"We do have a strong layer of protection though of vaccination plus infection prevention, control plus testing, but I would hope we'll see continued rise in numbers for those workers with vaccination," he said.
"I personally am disappointed if it truly is 80 per cent."
Moore said a working group involving the province and the Hospital for Sick Children is preparing for an eventual approval of vaccines for kids between the ages of five and 11, and is looking at prioritizing kids with medical conditions.
Lecce said Tuesday that they are working on setting up a hotline through SickKids so parents can get fact-based answers to their questions about vaccines for their young children.
"It's not approved yet, but of course, we're preparing for that scenario with provincewide vaccine clinics," Lecce said.
The government has declined to add COVID-19 vaccinations to the list of mandatory immunizations for children to attend school, such as measles and chickenpox. It has also declined to mandate vaccination for teachers and other school staff.
Ontario reported 429 new COVID-19 cases and four deaths Tuesday.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 5, 2021.
- With files from Holly McKenzie-Sutter.
Allison Jones, The Canadian Press