As COVID-19 cases rise, rapid tests being deployed in schools in Laval, Montreal hot zones

Quebec has begun using rapid testing to detect cases of COVID-19 in 72 schools in four targeted spots in Montreal and Laval.

20% of Quebec schools are reporting cases of COVID-19

Schools in areas with higher COVID-19 rates and lower vaccination rates are receiving rapid tests to be used on symptomatic students. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

Quebec has begun using rapid testing to detect cases of COVID-19 in 72 schools in four targeted spots in Montreal and Laval. 

All four have a high number of active cases, including the Montreal neighbourhoods of Parc-Extension, Saint-Michel and Montréal-Nord, as well as Chomedey in Laval.

About 20 per cent of schools in Quebec are reporting cases of COVID-19, which accounts for about 600 schools and more than 1,000 positive cases. 

Education Minister Jean-François Roberge said Monday the rapid tests are intended as a "complementary" measure to better understand the spread of the virus.

He said the province's public health experts still believe that the standard, more widely used PCR tests are more accurate.

'Like bringing in a small extinguisher'

Olivier Drouin, the founder of Covid Écoles, a crowdsourcing initiative tracking cases in schools and advocating for more preventive measures, is among those who argue the tests should be more widely deployed. 

"It's a step in the right direction, but it's like bringing a small extinguisher when an entire building is on fire," Drouin said. 

Montreal researchers, however, found in a study released last spring the tests weren't effective when used randomly as a preventive tool, but they could be useful in situations where outbreaks were already suspected.

The study was based on a pilot project in two schools.

Dr. Christoper Labos, a Montreal cardiologist with a degree in epidemiology, said the point of rapid testing is to avoid sending children home in the middle of the day when they develop symptoms.

"We just have to get over the novelty of the experience and realize the technical aspects [of administering tests] are not that hard as long as we give them the proper training," he said. 

"We'll diagnose more cases, but hopefully if we can do it fast enough, it's going to limit the ultimate size of outbreaks in schools and allow things to get back to normal a lot more quickly."

Olivier Drouin, the founder of Covid Écoles, says Quebec should use rapid tests in more than just 72 schools. (CBC)

It's unclear, at this point, what schools are supposed to do when pupils test positive.

"There are different scenarios that need to be considered," said Dr. Donald Vinh, an infectious diseases expert at the Research Institute of the McGill University Health Centre. "This isn't simply a pregnancy test."

Vinh said the government needs to set clear guidelines about addressing student infections — those who test positive and those who test negative but were exposed to people with COVID-19.

"If we're just [rapid testing in schools] as a sort of a way to appease the pressures on the government, that's the wrong reason to do it, and it's only going to be wasting our money."

Heidi Yetman, the president of the Quebec Provincial Association of Teachers, said the provincial government should have made it clearer to school employees how it would work. 

"Again, it seems like they're using the employees on the ground to try to get these tests rolling instead of hiring people," Yetman said. 

"Again, the government puts out things and then just doesn't follow through or expects staff on the ground to do that extra work."

With files from Valeria Cori-Manocchio, Holly Cabrera and CBC Montreal's Daybreak


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