Down south, several companies producing and shipping rapid tests to countries around the world, including Canada, are feeling a supply pinch due to demand from U.S. employers.
To ensure kits aren’t wasted then, provinces must have targeted strategies in place, said Dr. Anna Banerji, a pediatric infectious disease specialist with the University of Toronto’s Temerty Faculty of Medicine.
“We need to be careful where we use it to make sure it’s used in the right scenario,” she said. “If there’s a location where there’s a very high rate of COVID or there’s an outbreak actively going on in a school, then it might help.”
Ontario and Alberta were the latest provinces to join the rapid test school strategy on Tuesday, announcing “targeted” programs in those settings.
Dr. Kieran Moore, Ontario’s chief medical officer of health, said rapid tests will be made available at a local medical officer of health’s discretion, based on “local epidemiological circumstances.”
That’s a good way to think, Banerji said.
“But I think to use it in areas where there’s very low prevalence of COVID and an outbreak is not going on, or there’s very few cases, then you’re wasting the test, basically.”
What’s happening in the United States?
In the U.S., employers seeking rapid tests in high volumes has resulted in a nationwide shortage of the kits, industry executives and state officials told Reuters.
Manufacturers have been ramping up production to meet rising demand, but boosting output will take weeks to months, half a dozen industry executives told Reuters, resulting in a near-term supply pinch.
Almost a dozen state governments said they’re grappling with shortages of rapid tests, which provide on-the-spot results in minutes and are a key component of COVID-19 surveillance programs.
Some of the companies feeling the squeeze include Quidel Corp, which is listed as a supplier for Canada.
“Employer demand has gone crazy,” said Quidel chief executive Doug Bryant in the Reuters story. “We won’t be able to meet all the requests that we’re having.”
Could that impact Canada’s supply?
Canadian officials didn’t directly answer questions on a potential impact, but a Health Canada spokesperson directed Global News to the government’s current rapid test stockpile.
To date, the federal government has received just over 53 million rapid tests. Of that, just over 43 million tests have been shipped to provinces and territories, about nine million of those tests have been used, and roughly 10 million remain in emergency supply.
Canada has sourced tests kits from several multinational manufacturers, including U.S.-based Quidel. Of the 53 million rapid tests received to date, 850,000 are Quidel’s products and 90,600 have been shipped.
When new tests arrive in Canada depends on the specific agreements, the government said on its website.
“All deliveries do not arrive at the same time,” it said. “The suppliers continue to ship on a regular basis, on the schedule outlined in each contract.”
An Ontario government spokesperson told Global News that based on demand estimates, “supply is not currently a concern.”
The total number of rapid tests needed in schools will depend on uptake by local public health units, the spokesperson said, adding the province “continues to work closely with Health Canada to revise supply and demand estimates as needed.”
Regardless, thousands of students in Ontario may soon be pulling from that supply.
That’s why it’s important for provinces using rapid tests to make sure their deployment strategies are “practical,” said Annie Kidder, executive director of People for Education, citing Saskatchewan and Quebec as examples.
“There’s a lot of different ways of doing it,” she said. “But I think we do have to be somewhat practical about this.”
Which provinces are implementing rapid testing in schools?
Among the provinces with rapid school test projects are Saskatchewan, Quebec, Nova Scotia, Ontario and Alberta.
On Monday in Saskatchewan, a voluntary rapid-testing program began provincewide, targeting households with students age 11 years and under. Parents can contact their children’s school about receiving at-home self-testing kits for their kids and all household members. Self-testing, though, is for asymptomatic screening only.
In Nova Scotia, families with children in pre-primary to Grade 6 in the province’s public school system will receive free COVID-19 rapid testing kits. Volunteers are putting together a pilot program that will provide 320,000 rapid tests to families.
Within a few weeks, Nova Scotia schools will give nose swab testing kits to families who want them, as well as with instructions on how to use them at home.
In Quebec, the province is rolling out rapid tests in preschools and elementary schools. The initiative was already underway in some areas, including Montreal. The goal is to prevent outbreaks of COVID-19 in school settings.
In Ontario, the province’s program is voluntary, targeting unvaccinated students with no symptoms who are not high-risk contacts of a case. It impacts schools and licensed child-care settings.
Alberta also announced Tuesday it will introduce a targeted rapid test program for schools experiencing outbreaks. Under that program, students in kindergarten to Grade 6 will be able to be tested at home twice a week. Parents can receive the tests from their child’s school.
“This will give us another way to protect our youngest children who cannot yet be vaccinated,” said Alberta Education Minister Adriana LaGrange.
Protective measures needed in absence of vaccine
As the country awaits the approval of a childhood COVID-19 vaccine, Kidder said provinces must do all they can to protect unvaccinated kids, including mandatory vaccination for students 12 and up and staff.
“That way with the rapid testing, it is possible to just target kids 11 and under because right now, they can’t be vaccinated, they’re most at risk and most at risk of bringing COVID home to their families,” she said.
“But it’s got to start with vaccination, and we’ve got to start with making that vaccination absolutely mandatory for all staff and all students 12 and over.”
Banerji said she hopes a children’s vaccine is found to be safe and gets approved and implemented quickly.
“We need to do whatever we can to try to keep those kids from getting COVID while we wait for vaccination,” she said.