New modelling from Simon Fraser University suggests that deployment of rapid testing into long-term care homes could cut the COVID-19 death toll by 25 to 55 per cent.
The research commissioned by Safe Care BC, a workplace safety organization representing the continuing care sector, found that daily screening of all visitors and staff could cut exposures in care homes by 90 per cent, and testing every three days could cut exposures by about half.
Nearly three quarters of B.C.’s COVID-19 deaths have occurred in care facilities, according to the latest situation update from the BC Centre for Disease Control.
SFU’s modelling only looked at deaths up to the first week of January, but suggested that testing every seven days would have cut deaths on average by 150-240, while testing every three days could have prevented an average of 270-330 deaths.
“What must be happening is people, probably staff, are bringing it in when they don’t have symptoms,” said Paul Tupper, an SFU mathematician who worked on the project.
Jen Lyle, CEO of Safe Care BC, said the province is sitting on about 1.3 million rapid tests, which could be deployed to care homes to implement screening.
She said even with vaccines now being delivered, the model showed benefit — one that could be crucial amid ongoing vaccine delivery delays.
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“We looked at our current strategies, which is we don’t start testing until someone has symptoms. Then we looked at what would happen if we started proactively screening people either once a week or three times a week, with something as simple as a rapid test,” she said.
“And what we found was the second you started regularly screening staff, you both had a decrease in the number of outbreaks. And when outbreaks did occur, the size was smaller.”
The call for rapid testing in care homes is not new. B.C.’s Seniors Advocate has been urging the province to use the tests for months, as has the B.C. Care Providers Association.
Both have stressed that tests are not a magic bullet, but would flag possible COVID carriers who could have their diagnosis verified with a PCR lab test.
People who test negative, they argue, would still need to undergo all the existing screening procedures as well.
But provincial officials have been reticent to employ the tests.
At her Friday briefing, provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said the province had not been encouraged by a pilot project with the tests in a care-home setting.
“Pilots that were done in (five) long-term care homes in Vancouver Coastal, really, it shows that you really had to have staff resources from the facility, as well as medical staff,” she said.
“They’re not simple, they do take resources and they take commitment from staff and from the facilities themselves.”
Lyle isn’t convinced by that argument, countering that cases and outbreaks in a care-home setting create their own massive drain on resources.
“Yes, there’s some work required to do it as a screening strategy, but there’s an incredible amount of work that goes into responding to an outbreak,” she said.
“And that doesn’t begin to take in the human cost and the lives lost when that outbreak does occur.”