Millions of rapid test kits for COVID-19 appear to have gone unused in Alberta, in what advocates are calling a missed opportunity to help curb the spread of the disease in schools.
Edmonton infectious diseases physician Dr. Leyla Asadi said rapid tests have been an underused tool throughout the pandemic. Routine use of the kits can help identify people who have COVID-19 but aren’t showing symptoms.
A person with a preliminary positive result can isolate while waiting for a lab test to confirm, helping curb the spread of the virus to others, she said.
“It’s become clear that vaccines alone are not sufficient,” Asadi said. “We need to have this layered approach with masks, with ventilation, with filtration, and with rapid tests.”
The rate of new COVID-19 cases among children age 5-11, who are not eligible to be vaccinated, now far exceeds the pace of new diagnoses for any other age group, according to Alberta Health data.
Meanwhile, the federal government reports that of the 4.4 million rapid test kits it has sent to Alberta, just one million of them have been reported as used. The government says 3.5 million kits have been distributed to organizations.
As of Monday, Alberta Health said it has 980,000 kits in a stockpile that schools or other organizations can request from the Alberta Rapid Testing Program. The kits are part of the federal supply.
As of Sept. 17, four schools had applied for and received test kits from the program, Alberta Health spokesperson Tom McMillan said.
Calgary Catholic Schools is is receiving 84,000 kits for staff to monitor themselves, spokesperson Felicia Zuniga said. Employees who opt into the program can test themselves once per week until the winter holiday break, she said.
But at least one other school division wasn’t aware of the program until contacted by CBC.
Testing program fizzled in spring
A rapid testing program announced by Premier Jason Kenney and Education Minister Adriana LaGrange on April 10 during the third wave also fell far short of its goals.
LaGrange and Kenney said they were sending 440,000 kits to schools in Edmonton, Calgary, Lethbridge and Grande Prairie to screen up to 200,000 students and 20,000 staff. These kits were also part of the federal supply.
At the time, the government was requiring health-care workers to administer the tests. It spent $2 million with contractors Aceso Medical and Calian Ltd. to set up testing sites, perform the tests and administer the program in 12 municipalities.
By late June, they had performed 34,699 rapid tests in schools — using about eight per cent of the 440,000 available kits.
McMillan, the Alberta Health spokesperson, said the program was significantly curtailed by two factors — the move to at-home learning during the third wave, and classes being sent home to isolate during outbreaks.
Both Fort McMurray Catholic Schools and the Alberta Teachers’ Association (ATA) said getting parental consent to perform the tests was a major hurdle.
Asadi said with the requirement for health-care workers to oversee the tests now gone, families could easily test children at home, routinely, if they had the kits.
Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s chief medical officer of health, said last week the government is not withholding rapid tests from schools. They’re available to those who want them, she said.
ATA president Jason Schilling said the government should be proactively providing the tests to schools with high absentee rates, particularly since the province is no longer doing contact tracing in schools.
“They’re essentially flying blind,” Schilling said. “The government should be providing the means for schools to keep the people who are learning and working in those buildings as safe as possible.”
‘Unconsionable waste,’ parent says
Edmonton parent Lauren Sergy said it is an “unconscionable waste of resources” to have hundreds of thousands of tests sitting on shelves while COVID-19 cases rise in elementary school-age children.
“Every bit of this feels like a political decision that is being downloaded and imposed upon the school boards and the parents to make on their own because the government feared some kind of repercussion,” Sergy said.
Meanwhile, some school boards are using education funding to pay private vendors to give staff both rapid and lab-confirmed COVID-19 tests.
Last year, Edmonton Public Schools spent more than $254,000 conducting 4,454 tests on staff with COVID-19 symptoms. That program continues this year.
And Elk Island Catholic, St. Albert Public and Greater St. Albert Catholic school divisions have been running a shared staff testing program since last year to get staff back in classrooms faster.
Elk Island Catholic Schools superintendent Shawn Haggarty said the $44,000 cost so far for his division is far less than the calling in substitute teachers.
Asadi said that until children can be vaccinated, parents should have access to tests they can use at home.
“Even some testing would be better than what we have now,” she said.
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