Ontario says it is expanding COVID-19 testing options for students at more schools in the province — including providing at-home rapid tests over the winter holidays — as well as offering testing for symptomatic individuals at some pharmacies.
Officials said at a media briefing Thursday that the province will provide 11 million rapid antigen screening tests for students at publicly-funded schools to be taken over the winter holidays before a return to class in January.
Schools boards will be responsible for giving every student a box of five rapid antigen tests, to be taken every Monday and Thursday starting on Dec. 23, officials said. Students who test positive will be required to isolate and take a lab-based PCR test as soon as possible, they said.
Participation in the holiday testing program is optional and will not be required for students to return to in-person classes, officials said.
The province has offered the same testing option to the 100 or so First Nations schools in Ontario. Since those schools fall outside the jurisdiction of the provincial government, officials said, they need to opt-in to the program.
Officials said the rapid tests will not come from the federal stockpile. Rather, the province entered into a contract to purchase the tests directly from a single company for about $50 million.
Additionally, this month, all publicly-funded schools across Ontario will begin offering take-home PCR testing kits to symptomatic students, and asymptomatic high-risk contacts of confirmed COVID-19 cases.
Some schools in the Toronto and Ottawa areas are already providing these tests to students through programs facilitated by local hospitals.
Top doctor deems pharmacy testing of symptomatic individuals safe
Meanwhile, officials confirmed that pharmacies in Ontario will begin offering COVID-19 testing options for symptomatic individuals, an expansion that was first reported earlier this week.
Some 1,300 pharmacies have suggested they are interested in participating in the program, officials said, adding that the province approached pharmacies about this project and not the other way around.
Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Kieran Moore said Thursday that in establishing best practices for this rollout, the province is drawing on experiences from over a year and a half of administering tests.
“We think we can do this in a very safe way,” he said.
Three separate options could be offered, depending on the location:
- In-store PCR testing by appointment-only.
- Self-collection lab-based kits with no appointment necessary.
- In-store rapid molecular testing by appointment only, with results processed on site within 30 minutes. Officials said this option will initially be focused on northern Ontario.
Officials said that the decision to allow pharmacies to provide tests for symptomatic people was supported by the government’s top public health officials. Participating pharmacies will be required to implement “strict” infection prevention and control measures, officials said, including:
- Mandatory appointments, with no walk-ins, for the in-store PCR testing option.
- Making dedicated space for testing. But when pressed on whether that means a private room or simply a space divided by plexi-glass barriers, for example, officials couldn’t provide a clear answer. They said it would depend on the lay-out of a specific pharmacy location.
- Routine cleaning and disinfecting.
- Physical distancing and “optimizing” ventilation.
- “Stringent” PPE requirements.
- People showing symptoms or who have had a recent exposure to the virus must wear a surgical/medical mask.
Pharmacies who can’t meet these requirements will not be allowed to participate in the program, officials said.
Ontario will also undertake a “holiday testing blitz,” officials said. Mobile testing units will be deployed to places like public spaces, malls, and holiday markets. Locations are still being identified and will be identified in the coming weeks, officials explained.