Ontario will offer rapid COVID-19 tests to some schools and child-care settings to help ensure students can continue with in-person learning as much as possible, the province’s chief medical officer of health said Tuesday.
Dr. Kieran Moore announced the new rapid antigen screening program at a morning news conference.
Tests will only be provided to unvaccinated, asymptomatic children who are not considered high-risk contacts of a positive COVID-19 case, Moore said. In Ontario, children 11 and under are not yet eligible to be vaccinated against the novel coronavirus.
Local public health units will have discretion in requesting the tests, Moore added, based on several key factors like the level of virus transmission and vaccination rate in the community where a school is based, and the history of COVID-19 in a particular school or child-care facility.
Participation in the screening program is optional and tests will be conducted at home. Children who test negative can continue with in-person classes. Those who test positive will need to undergo lab-based, PCR testing and isolate until the results of the second, more accurate test is known, Moore said.
Rapid antigen tests are “another tool in the tool chest” when it comes to curbing school-related cases and outbreaks and keeping students in class, he said.
Roughly one-third of the province’s 4,734 active COVID-19 cases are in people aged 18 and under. Moore said, however, that transmission within schools remains relatively low.
Ontario said last week that a working group had been established to begin planning for vaccinations of children aged five to 11, though there is considerable uncertainty about how and when that effort will proceed.
Speaking yesterday, Education Minister Stephen Lecce said that about 80 per cent of education workers in Ontario have been fully vaccinated. Asked if he thought that was an acceptable level of vaccine coverage to keep schools safe, Moore said he would be personally “disappointed” if more workers in the sector were not immunized.
Today’s announcement comes after groups of parents had organized surveillance testing for their schools using the rapid test kits, but the provincial government told agencies to stop distributing them to anyone but businesses.
Moore has said widespread asymptomatic surveillance testing in schools isn’t recommended because in very low-risk settings rapid tests can produce more false positive results than true positives. False positives keep children out of school longer, Moore added, and lead to a “cascade of unnecessary PCR testing.”
All three of Ontario’s COVID-19 advisory tables have also cautioned against mass asymptomatic testing for the province’s two million students.
A targeted, “risk-based strategy” with rapid tests can aid in preventing and limiting transmission within schools, data from the United Kingdom and United States suggests, according to Moore.
Moore is also set to hold a weekly briefing on Thursday to update the province on the response to COVID-19.