Alberta is expanding its COVID-19 rapid testing program to target asymptomatic people in various sectors across the province, including oil and gas, schools and banks.
Students at two Calgary schools — one in the Calgary Board Education and one in the Calgary Catholic School District — will be involved in a pilot rapid testing program, which will begin as early as next week.
Officials are hoping to learn if rapid tests will be an effective way of managing outbreaks, Education Minister Adriana LaGrange said Thursday.
She said the tests will be done on staff and students who don’t have symptoms of the novel coronavirus. The tests will then be offered one week later, and possibly again at the three-week mark.
“We know rapid testing may offer a close-to-real time check on the situation in an entire school experiencing an outbreak,” LaGrange said.
“The pilot will evaluate the benefit of using these tests to reduce the risk of transmission in schools.”
LaGrange said the pilot program “strengthens the commitment” to keep children in schools during the pandemic, calling every day that a student can benefit from in-person learning a “win.”
The rapid testing approach makes it easy for students and staff to be tested throughout the school day, with little disruption to their routines, she said.
“We also want to determine if rolling out these screening tests on-site is practical in a school environment,” LaGrange said, adding that’s why only two schools in the same city will be part of the pilot for now.
The education minister said officials will look at the results and challenges from the first three weeks of testing, as well as feedback from staff, students, parents and school boards, and determine whether to continue or expand the program.
The two Calgary schools participating in the pilot will be announced next week, and will be chosen by the board, Alberta Health and Alberta Education, LaGrange said.
“If we do not get a good uptake from the parents or from the staff members, then certainly we will look to choose another school,” she said.
LaGrange said rapid testing pilot is “strictly a voluntary program” for schools.
“The logistics are that the schools will notify parents and staff that they will be taking part in the pilot. They will have to provide consent forms to both the staff and to the parents.”
Parents are expected to be notified early next week with tests starting later in the week. If a student tests positive, the schools will follow the current protocols in place for a dealing with a staff member or student with a confirmed case of COVID-19.
Andrea Holowka, superintendent of learning services at CCSD, said the board is really pleased to be selected for the pilot.
She said the tests will be done by a swab in the shallow part of students’ and employees’ noses, and they’ll be done inside the schools, likely in the gymnasium.
“We’re trying to look for a fairly typical school, so the first one will probably be an elementary-junior high, so kindergarten to Grade 9 type of setting, and that will give us sort of our medium-sized school which will allow for, hopefully, a successful pilot that we can then scale up or scale down depending on the size of the next schools,” Holowka said.
She said keeping students in schools during the pandemic is “critical.”
“We know that the schools are really important for the students’ continuity of their education, as well as so that society can continue on with a safe place for the children to be during the day. So I think any measures that we can take to keep students in school as a province and as a school jurisdiction, we want to get behind and support.”
Alberta Teachers’ Association president Jason Schilling said he’s pleased to see the program launch as it’s something his organization has been advocating for since last fall.
“It is something I would love to see expanded into more schools across this province, so that we can ensure the safety measures that are there in place with COVID and that we know that our communities in schools are safe,” he said.
“Being able to be tested in that measure rapidly like that just helps in terms of how the school operates. So, you know, to think about the pressures that are on substitute teachers right now and things like that, (this) can help alleviate some of that.”
Schilling also wants to see school staff be prioritized in the vaccination program.
Rapid tests used as ‘red-light’ tests
Health Minister Tyler Shandro said 100,000 of nearly one million newly acquired rapid tests will be going to the school testing program.
Positive rapid tests still need to be confirmed through a PCR lab test, Shandro said, but rapid tests provide a better picture of asymptomatic cases in the community, and help to ensure those infected get into isolation quickly. He said the tests also help to limit viral transmission.
Results from rapid tests are typically ready in as little as 15 minutes, Shandro said.
All 336 long-term care, designated supported living and hospice sites in the province have received rapid test kits, with some programs already underway. Applications have also been submitted from places like seniors lodges and are being reviewed, with thousands of tests expected to be shipped out in the coming weeks.
Shandro said 325,000 tests are being sent to the oil and gas sector, 76,000 to WestJet and 56,000 to support screen employees at banks and telecommunications and transportation facilities.
Rapid tests will also be done at the High River Cargill meat-packing facility, which was the site of one of Alberta’s worst outbreaks of the virus – with discussions underway to expand to other plants.
More than 100,000 tests have also been sent to assessment centres, rural and remote hospital labs, as well as shelters, including mobile testing sites.
Chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw said rapid testing us helpful when samples are gathered from a population over a period of time.
Hinshaw described them as a “red-light test,” which means anyone who tests positive gets a “stop” signal, and isn’t allowed to enter a workplace or community setting.
“Unfortunately, it does not work as a green-light test, meaning that a negative test is not a go-ahead to do any kind of activity, because a rapid test isn’t as sensitive as some of the other types of tests we use,” she said.
Hinshaw said it’s possible for someone’s rapid test to be negative, and the person to still become infectious that day, and stressed rapid tests don’t replace current health measures.
“This underscores how important it is to remember how rapid tests work and how they don’t, so we can use them to improve safety, and not put safety at risk by providing a false sense of security.”
The Opposition NDP called on the government in December to bring rapid tests to Alberta schools, and education critic Sarah Hoffman said Thursday that while she’s “glad to hear the Minister of Education has finally taken my advice,” she’s worried about “what effect the delay in action by the UCP has cost families.”
Shandro said part of the reason the program wasn’t introduced earlier is because Health Canada has been and is advising against using rapid tests for screening. Shandro said the federal government has since given the green light for “off-label use of the rapid test for screening,” which allowed Alberta to “unroll the rapid testing program on a much wider scope.”