Ontario unveiled its winter COVID-19 testing strategy on Thursday which includes a “holiday blitz” as well as providing students with take-home rapid antigen tests over the school break.
The province said it is looking to expand its testing plan as winter and the colder weather comes in and pushes people to spend more time indoors and increase close contact.
The winter strategy is a three-prong response — a holiday mobile testing blitz, access to low barrier testing options for elementary and secondary school students and expanded access to testing through pharmacies.
From mid-December to early January, the province will be launching a mobile testing blitz with “pop-up testing for asymptomatic people in higher traffic public settings.” Locations for these mobile units will be released in the coming weeks but will most likely be near public spaces like retail stores and holiday markets.
Locations will also be picked based on where risk is higher including areas with low vaccination numbers and/or higher transmission number.
The province will also be handing out 11 million rapid antigen tests to students in publicly funded schools between late November and mid-December before the winter break. The procurement of the tests will cost the government $50 million.
Education Minister Stephen Lecce said the government decided to offer the rapid tests out of an “abundance of caution” based on increased virus transmission that happened over the holidays in 2020.
“We thought it would be prudent to provide five rapid test kits to children, all children in Ontario, really premised on the objective of getting them back in January,” Lecce told reporters at a Toronto press conference on Thursday.
Each student will receive five tests and should test themselves every three to four days over the break (every Monday and Thursday beginning Dec. 23). Participation in this endeavour is voluntary.
This program has been offered to First Nations schools, as well.
In late October, Ontario said all students in Toronto public schools will have access to take-home PCR kits, an option that will be made available to more students across the province beginning in mid-November.
This is being done to “increase access to low barrier testing options for school-aged children,” the province said. Private and First Nations schools can also participate.
The PCR kits are available for students who are symptomatic or asymptomatic but have been identified as a close contact of a confirmed COVID-19 case.
The number of pharmacies offering testing will increase beginning Nov. 18 and will go from 211 up to 1,300 within a few weeks. This will include testing offered to symptomatic individuals, which was met with criticism when it was announced on Tuesday.
Minister of Health Christine Elliott defended the decision on Wednesday saying the pharmacies will take standard infection prevention and control measures — including mask-wearing, physical distancing and having a dedicated space to perform the tests.
The province’s medical officer of health Dr. Kieran Moore said Thursday that he understands people’s concerns, but maintained that the plan is safe.
“They may not have had the conversations that we’ve had with our pharmacy partners,” he said. “I have complete confidence that they do it safely, they’ll follow the right precautions.”
He also said the pharmacy tests would offer access to more people and lessen the burden on other parts of the health system.
Other new testing options that will be offered by pharmacies include in-store lab-based PCR testing, self-collection lab-based PCR kits and in-store rapid molecular (diagnostic) testing. However, not all participating stores will offer all of the above. Ontarians can view locations here.
—With files from The Canadian Press
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