Health officials in provinces across the country are increasing the demand for laboratory COVID-19 tests as students head back to school with a fourth wave.
Experts warn that as the virus – with run-of-the-mill colds – begins to circulate in classrooms and hallways among the under-12 population, for whom there are no approved vaccines, COVID-19 cases are going to grow even faster. They are now. So will a flood of parents eager to get their kids tested.
Some fear a repeat of last fall’s problems as testing demand exploded, particularly in Ontario, where the province’s system was overwhelmed with lineups and backlogs. But provincial officials say it will be different this time.
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In Alberta, where local media say people had to wait two hours at a small-staffed Edmonton assessment center, testing capacity is being ramped up to cope with back-to-school demand.
In Ontario, schools in Ottawa and Toronto are being given take-home test kits for use by symptomatic students or for dismissing entire classes because of a probable or confirmed COVID-19 case. But in some cases the kits, which rely on the same PCR (polymerase chain reaction) tests and must be sent to a lab, won’t be distributed for several weeks as public-health officials and hospitals roll them out to schools. Huh.
Niagara Region Health Medical Officer Mustafa Hirji says the province’s testing system is already slowing down. A month ago, he said, people in his area could book tests on the same day, allowing public health to quickly trace contacts and isolate positive cases.
Now, even before most classes can resume on Thursday, he said, it is taking at least a day or two to book tests – and in some cases, three or four days -. There used to be three assessment centers in their area, now it has only one.
“I am absolutely concerned about the capacity of the test,” Dr Hirji said, adding that his public-health unit is talking to local hospitals about ramping up efforts.
“Forty percent of our illiterate population are students under the age of 12. Schools are going to be the biggest concentration of illiterate people for us and I really worry that school could be the area where we have the most outbreaks “
Testing rules also differ between provinces. Alberta, which recorded nearly 5,000 new cases over the long weekend alone, has no requirement for the health care system to notify school divisions about a positive case in a student.
Edmonton Public Schools had 52 cases as of Wednesday afternoon, just three days into the new school year. Board chair Trisha Estabrooks said families and staff have notified schools of positive cases.
“This is not an accurate picture because, unlike last year, we are not receiving information from Alberta Health Services when there are positive cases in our school,” she said. “It’s like we’re flying blind.”
She said that when schools detect a positive case, they share the information with other families, but teachers are not allowed to dismiss classes.
“In Alberta, cases are increasing in Edmonton. This variant of Delta is aggressive. We have 57,000 illiterate primary students. I sincerely hope that our number of cases will increase,” Ms Estabrooks said.
In British Columbia, health officials say they can conduct up to 20,000 laboratory tests a day and that anyone who is, or who is part of an identified cluster or outbreak, can get a test through the public system. can receive.
In Prince Edward Island, Chief Public Health Officer Heather Morrison said in a release last week that the government was adding several COVID-19 testing sites as students and staff returned to school buildings.
“We all want to have as normal a school year as possible for students, families, teachers and education staff,” Dr Morrison said.
Meanwhile, Ontario Health, the agency that oversees the province’s health system, said the province’s diagnostic lab network has a capacity for more than 100,000 tests a day, “and enough capacity to meet testing needs while the turnaround Time must be maintained. This is much higher than the 40,000 tests the province was struggling to complete last September.
Ontario’s chief medical officer of health, Kieran Moore, said the province’s recently revised list of symptoms requiring a COVID-19 test that eliminates a runny nose as a trigger could reduce demand for testing. will help keep it. (He said that only 1 in 100 children with a runny nose was found to have COVID-19, making it not worth testing them all. However, the province’s advice still recommends keeping children home from school.)
Dr Moore said there have been discussions over the summer with pharmacies and local doctors’ offices about their potential role in increased testing. He also said that if the number of cases increases dramatically in the province, more rapid tests – which do not require laboratory analysis but are considered less accurate – could also be rolled out.
“We’ve certainly looked into Ontario and think we have enough potential. But it can be leveraged, if and when needed,” Dr. Moore said.
Ken Farian, medical and operations lead for the Ottawa COVID-19 Testing Task Force, said the system is better prepared to handle the surge in demand, unlike last fall, where lines were lined up around testing centers. In his area, a drive-thru testing facility is increasing its hours over the coming week.
But he said a lot would depend on whether parents keep sick children at home and whether masking and hand hygiene rules are followed.
“We don’t have a crystal ball though to know exactly what’s going to happen,” Dr. Farian said.
With a report by Andrea Wu in Vancouver
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