British Columbia

Plans for expanding use of COVID-19 rapid tests in B.C. coming Tuesday, health ministry says

B.C.'s Ministry of Health says it will unveil plans on Tuesday to further utilize rapid antigen tests in the province as case numbers of COVID-19 rise.

Province has come under scrutiny for not utilizing tests more, especially as Omicron variant spreads

A rapid antigen test. Many in B.C. want the tests to be made freely available as another layer of protection against the spread of COVID-19 in the province. (Alexandre Silberman/CBC News)

B.C.'s Ministry of Health says it will unveil plans on Tuesday to further utilize rapid antigen tests in the province as case numbers of COVID-19 rise.

The plans will detail "how we will enhance our strategy by using more self-tests," a ministry spokesperson said in an email on Sunday.

The ministry said work is currently underway to convert rapid tests the province has into self-tests for use at home. It is also expecting a supply of home tests from the federal government by the middle of January.

The province has faced calls to widely distribute the tests, which can be used at home and provide results in minutes, over the course of the pandemic,and more acutely in the past week with the growing spread of the Omicron coronavirus variant.

Many advocates, opposition MLAs and residents want the tests to be made freely available as another layer of protection against the spread of COVID-19 in the province, which to date has claimed the lives of 2,399 people.

Some other provinces and other jurisdictions around the world offer free rapid tests for anyone who wants them as a way to help limit the spread of infections. Currently the only way for most people in B.C. to get the tests is to buy them online.

'We have to act now'

Sally Otto, an evolutionary biology professor at the University of British Columbia and COVID-19 modeller, says rapid tests could be very helpful for residents to have — especially over the holiday season, so people can test themselves if they aren't feeling well before visiting others.

She said symptoms of the Omicron variant are different from previous COVID-19 variants.

"It's much more likely to manifest as a head cold with runny nose, sore throat ... and data shows that it's more likely to attack the bronchi, so not your lungs itself, but the airways," Otto said on the CBC's The Early Edition.

She said she's worried hospitalization demands will increase in mid-January if the province doesn't expedite the distribution of rapid tests as well as the booster shot program.

"We have to act now in order to avert that crisis," she said. "Boosters are turning out to be really important against Omicron because ... our immune reaction is too weak against this very different variant."

Expanding rapid testing strategy

B.C. health officials announced 789 new cases of COVID-19 and three more deaths on Friday, as the Omicron variant continues to drive a spike in cases.

They said 302 cases of the new variant have been identified in B.C., up from 135 on Thursday.

Long lineups were reported at testing sites across the Lower Mainland over the weekend.

The province said on Sunday that its rapid testing strategy is expanding, as is polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing, which is seen as the gold standard test to confirm or rule out an infection.

Roughly 20,600 PCR tests are being conducted a day currently, according to a ministry official.

A lineup of cars at a COVID-19 testing clinic in Vancouver on Dec. 17. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

As of Dec. 17, the federal government's website showed it had sent nearly 3.4 million rapid tests to B.C., though only about 326,000 had been reported as being used — about 10 per cent. 

The provincial Ministry of Health said over the course of the pandemic more than 550,000 rapid tests have been used in B.C., with 35,000 now being used every week.

It said on Sunday that it is working with the federal government to access the province's share of rapid tests that have been procured by Ottawa.

"As we did with vaccination and other things, you'll see a systematic effort focused on those who need it most and to reduce transmission for those who are the most vulnerable and to assist people in dealing with this pandemic," said the statement from B.C.'s health ministry.

Where rapid tests are being distributed

Rapid test kits in B.C. are available for free at long-term care and assisted-living facilities.

Non-profits, charities and Indigenous community organizations can also receive free rapid tests through the Canadian Red Cross to distribute to the communities they serve. 

Businesses can access tests for their staff for a fee through the Safe Screen B.C. program.

The Fraser Health Authority has a program to provide rapid tests to people in hot spots who aren't fully vaccinated or cannot be vaccinated.

With files from Courtney Dickson and The Early Edition

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