TORONTO — Ontario is preparing to send a pack of five rapid antigen COVID-19 tests home with every school child in the province in time for winter break, in a massive effort to screen kids over the holidays and prevent infected kids from re-entering schools in January.
Ontario health officials said that sometime in mid-December, schools will hand out 11 million rapid antigen COVID-19 tests – enough for all the roughly 2.2 million public school students in the province – with instructions that they use one every three or four days over the winter break, starting on Dec. 23.
Anyone who tests positive with the antigen tests will then be required to take a confirmatory PCR COVID-19 test.
But participation is voluntary and any child who does not take the rapid tests will be allowed to return to school in January.
The move is a major sea change from official Ford government policy this school year.
In September, CP24 revealed that the province was supplying rapid antigen tests to private schools, free of charge, while public schools went without.
In response, public school parents formed groups to acquire rapid antigen tests themselves and run mass asymptomatic surveillance networks themselves.
The Ford government quashed that in October, saying rapid antigen tests should be kept for businesses.
Increasing pressure led them to launch a limited rapid antigen testing program for schools in October, which saw the tests used just a handful of times in the GTA.
Rapid antigen tests are less sensitive than PCR tests but cost only a fraction of PCR and take as little as 15 minutes to complete.
Officials said the province had to go out and procure additional tests from BTNX of Markham, Ont. in addition to the federal stockpile which has supplied them with nearly 28 million rapid tests to date, in order to get rapid tests to all students by mid-December.
Officials said the additional rapid test purchase cost the province $50 million.
They added that 100 First Nations schools in the province will also be offered packs of rapid tests, but said they were not sure if all schools would take them up on the offer.
Now, in conjunction with a new “test to stay” program for asymptomatic kids at schools experiencing COVID-19 outbreaks and the mass distribution of rapid antigen tests for the winter break, the province is also going to set up dozens of asymptomatic testing sites in major public spaces in what they called a “Holiday Mobile Testing Blitz.”
Up to 43 testing teams will be sent to malls, public squares and holiday markets, sometimes in conjunction with mobile COVID-19 vaccine clinics.
The mobile testing sites will be focused on areas of high COVID-19 transmission and lower vaccination rates.
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