Ontario's Science Table endorses asymptomatic COVID-19 surveillance testing for elementary school students
Ontario’s advisory panel of top epidemiologists has come out in favour of asymptomatic surveillance testing using rapid antigen tests for basically all elementary school students, especially in areas of the province where COVID-19 is especially prevalent.
On Thursday, the COVID-19 Science Advisory Table said that in areas where there are 35 or more weekly cases per 100,000 people – a threshold that currently includes virtually the entire province save for some of the GTA – elementary students should be tested with a rapid antigen screening test once per week.
In areas of the province with 250 or more weekly cases per 100,000, they recommend elementary, high school students and the unvaccinated should be tested two or three times per week.
“We considered elementary schools a priority for voluntary screen testing given that students less than 12 years of age are not fully vaccinated in Ontario,” the table wrote in its brief.
Last summer, the same panel suggested rapid antigen surveillance testing for asymptomatic children was unnecessary and would not detect enough infectious cases to make it worthwhile.
Regular symptomatic surveillance COVID-19 testing using rapid tests has been in place for months in long-term care homes, hospitals and a wide swath of essential businesses in Ontario.
But outside of the winter holiday break where the Ford government purchased 11 million rapid antigen tests to go home with all two million or more public school students, it has not been in place in any public school this year.
The province has also allowed rapid antigen testing for schools were all students were returning after a COVID-19-related closure, and also plans dozens of mobile testing sites in high-traffic public spaces this winter holiday season, but has resisted calls to implement asymptomatic surveillance testing in schools.
Groups of parents attempted to source their own rapid antigen tests to set up surveillance testing at dozens of individual schools, but their access to supplies was cut off.
Ontario’s testing guidance bars asymptomatic testing, either through full PCR COVID-19 tests or rapid testing devices, except in limited circumstances.
Testing at pharmacies and assessment centres is limited to people showing symptoms of COVID-19, identified high-risk close contacts of identified cases and asymptomatic members of certain high-risk groups.
Rapid tests can be purchased and performed at pharmacies for between $17 and $40 per test. On the open market, they range from $10.50 per test to as high as $16 each to be used at home.
Yesterday, Ontario Premier Doug Ford said there was no need to widen Ontario’s testing guidance, saying that the fact the province has delivered more rapid tests to businesses, hospitals and congregate care settings than any other province by a wide margin meant they had the best program in the country.
A spokesperson for Health Minister Christine Elliott said the Science Table report that suggested something sparsely seen before in the province “affirmed” the government’s current testing strategy.
She said Elliott is urging the federal government to increase deliveries of rapid tests to Ontario.
“Ontario deploys every single test received from the federal government, which is why Minister Elliott wrote to her federal counterpart Minister Duclos last week about the limited number of Health Canada approved rapid tests compared to other jurisdictions. With an increased demand for rapid tests and limited supply, we are continuing to urge the federal government to increase the number of approved rapid tests available for use in Ontario and across the country.”