Coronavirus rapid testing begins in Ottawa schools, long-term care homes

An Abbott Laboratories Panbio COVID-19 Rapid Test device is displayed. The tests are now rolling out to 17 long-term care homes in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan

Rapid tests for the novel coronavirus have rolled out in a handful of Ottawa long-term care homes and schools in hopes of catching asymptomatic COVID-19 cases and limiting the extent of possible outbreaks in high-risk settings.

The Ottawa COVID-19 Testing Task Force said Tuesday that 17 of the city’s 28 long-term care homes are now signed on to use Abbott Panbio rapid antigen tests to screen residents and visitors for the coronavirus.

The province has mandated that all of Ottawa’s long-term care homes implement rapid testing by Feb. 16 as a surveillance mechanism for detecting the virus at long-term care homes. The remaining care homes in Ottawa will soon sign on to use the technology, the task force said in a statement.

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Dr. Vera Etches, Ottawa’s medical officer of health, told reporters on Tuesday that rapid testing also started in local schools this past weekend ahead of the return to in-person schooling on Monday.

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Ten schools participated in a pilot program trialling the rapid tests in schools, she said.

But while in-person education represents a first step back towards a wider reopening from the Ontario government’s latest stay-home order and state of emergency, Ottawa Public Health data indicates schools in the nation’s capital have not been prominent sites of coronavirus transmission.

A new report from OPH released Tuesday shows that of the 888 COVID-19 cases detected in school settings between September and November, 85 per cent of people who tested positive were exposed to the virus outside the school.

Read more: Beware workplace, family spread, new Ottawa Public Health case study warns

More than half of local school outbreaks stemmed from a student or staff member who was a household contact of a confirmed case.

Of the 55 outbreaks in Ottawa schools, more than half were contained to only two individuals, according to the report.

Etches said Tuesday that this new data, combined with the negative mental health impacts on students and parents related to school closures, backs up the decision to return to in-person classes earlier this week.

The caveat to OPH’s school report is that it is limited to detected cases only, with not all high-risk contacts getting tested. As a result, the number of confirmed cases likely underestimates the total impact of COVID-19 in any setting.

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Rapid testing will be “targeted” in Ottawa schools, Etches said, when warranted to better determine the extent of a possible outbreak.

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