Rapid tests coming to 2 Montreal high schools with hopes of detecting COVID-19 faster

By deploying rapid COVID-19 tests in two Montreal high schools, the hope is that infections will be detected and contained even before symptoms appear. If it works, the method could be more widely used in Quebec schools.

Aim is to test asymptomatic staff and students, quickly isolating those who prove positive

Some 25 per cent of staff and students will be tested weekly at Calixa Lavallée high in Montréal-Nord and at the Pensionnat du Saint-Nom-de-Marie in Outremont. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

Can rapid COVID-19 tests make high schools safer? That's exactly what Dr. Caroline Quach is looking to find out — deploying the tests at two Montreal high schools to see if they can be used to curb transmission.

"If we're able to show quickly that there's an impact, then we are going to quickly notify the Ministry of Health and they are going to see if they want to deploy it in more schools, not as a project, but as a public health measure," said Quach, a pediatric infectious diseases specialist and medical microbiologist at Sainte-Justine hospital. 

Quach is heading the project, randomly testing 25 per cent of staff and students once a week at Calixa Lavallée in Montréal-Nord and at the Pensionnat du Saint-Nom-de-Marie in Outremont.

The goal of the project is to determine how effective these rapid tests are in detecting and preventing the spread of COVID-19 in schools.

Quach said the project will also look at the impact of bringing students and teachers back to school after seven days versus 14 days. The rapid testing will be used to monitor those brought back from isolation early.

The first step was to get approval from the government last month, and now the school administrations are seeking consent from parents.

Schools ready to help advance science

With her own child attending Pensionnat du Saint-Nom-de-Marie, a private school, and its proximity to the hospital, Quach said it was a natural choice. She has a working relationship with the school already and wants to use that relationship to help further the project.

The school's director, Yves Petit, expects most parents will consent to the program:

"We already have consent from 10 per cent of parents," he said.

Abbott ID Now is a rapid antigen testing machine. The Quebec government has more than 2 million rapid tests available. (Jeff Chiu/Associated Press)

Dominic Besnerd, principal at Calixa-Lavallée, said the school community looks forward to participating in a project that could advance science.

The rapid tests will begin the last week of January and Quach says the government will be regularly briefed on their efficiency.

Concerns about rapid testing's accuracy

Rapid testing technology has been available to Quebec since this fall, with more than one million tests in storage, largely unused, and about a million more on the way.

The main area of concern for the provincial government — also voiced by federal officials — is the rapid test's lower accuracy, or sensitivity, and the risk of false negatives. 

But many experts say the benefits of rapid testing outweigh the technological flaws. A group of 213 scientists, professors, health-care workers and patients published an open letter to the Legault government this week, demanding the tests be put to use.

"Faster identification of positive cases, including symptomatic and superspreaders who transmit the virus to many people in areas that pose a high risk of contagion, is a key to success," the letter states.

"In this respect, we believe that simple and widely available access to rapid testing that combines several types of tests to obtain a result in a matter of minutes could make a difference, especially in places where the virus is spreading."

David Juncker, a professor at McGill University and chair of the biomedical engineering department, said the current testing method is too slow and cumbersome. Those delays are hurting the effort to stave off the pandemic, he said.

Rapid testing  is more reliable when a person's viral load is higher, or in theory, most contagious, he explained. As a public health tool, the tests can be used to detect and isolate infectious individuals very quickly, he said.

Advocate says all technology should be put to use

Olivier Drouin, founder of the website COVID Écoles Québec that traces cases in schools, signed the open letter calling for more rapid testing and was happy to learn that they will soon be used in two schools.

He wants the government to focus on prevention, rather than reaction. As it stands, the protocol is to test when symptoms appear, but with rapid testing, even asymptomatic people are checked for the virus and isolated if they prove positive.

Drouin said it is the government's responsibility to provide all available technology to combat the spread of COVID-19.

A health-care worker greets a family at a COVID-19 test clinic in Montreal, which for now is the only way for students and staff to get tested for the disease. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

The president of the Pearson Teachers Union, Matt Wilson, said there is a general discomfort with the way Quebec Public Health has managed testing so far.

"I guess we've just lost faith in the public planning of the pandemic," said Wilson, who is a high school math teacher.

His union represents some 1,800 teachers, and those teachers are left scrambling whenever a student tests positive, he said. They have to figure out who was in contact with whom, teach from isolation and worry about bringing the virus home to their own families, he said.

He said the rapid testing could help alleviate some of those concerns, but he would like to see a broader testing and tracing strategy.

"If we could tell teachers that their classrooms are safe, I think that would help a lot," said Wilson.

With files from Lauren McCallum, Matt D'Amours and Sean Gordon

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