New Brunswick

Lift 'close contact' restriction on rapid testing in schools, parent urges

COVID-19 rapid tests will be available to unvaccinated students who are close contacts of a confirmed case. But some say the program is falling short of its potential.

Rollout of rapid tests should be broadened to include regular screening of all students, Miramichi mom says

COVID-19 rapid tests are starting become coveted by parents and residents who wish to have peace of mind before gathering or sending their child to school. (Charles Contant/CBC/Radio-Canada)

Kathleen Gadd was ecstatic to hear that New Brunswick is now offering rapid COVID-19 tests for students in schools.

But the Miramichi resident, a mother of three who provides administrative support to her husband's family physician office, said she was disheartened when she learned of the criteria around accessing them. 

"I was really surprised that they would only use it for the close contacts" of a confirmed COVID-19 case, Gadd said in an interview on Information Morning Fredericton.

The province announced Tuesday that it was moving to curb the spread of COVID-19 and disruption to in-class learning time by providing rapid tests for unvaccinated students.

The initiative, which mainly targets children under age 12 who are ineligible to be vaccinated, comes after a person under 19 was hospitalized because of the virus.

However, the tests are only available to unvaccinated students who are identified as a close contact in a confirmed case.

Given the number of cases, "particularly the number of school cases in our lockdown zone," Gadd said, that restriction was surprising.

Since September, more than 94 schools and 47 daycares and preschools have had confirmed cases of COVID-19. Just weeks into the school year, schools have reintroduced class bubbles and requirements to wear masks indoors.

In the wake of the restrictions on the use of rapid tests, Gadd said she begrudgingly ordered five rapid COVID-19 tests, at a cost of $115, through a virtual health-care provider. 

If the government doesn't move to make rapid tests more accessible, she said, she's planning to form a group of households who are interested in sharing the cost of buying rapid tests in bulk. 

"This is something ... that the people who are keeping a close eye on this feel the need to do," Gadd said.

Rapid testing throughout the province

In COVID-19 hotspot Sackville in the Moncton region, Zone 1 – which has the highest active cases in the province at 383 as of Wednesday – daycare workers say rapid testing has provided great peace of mind for both employees and parents.

Playschool Inc. director Allison Butcher said she got the rapid tests for classroom volunteers back in September.

"We said they needed to be double vaccinated, they needed to be masked the whole time, and we were going to do rapid tests, and I thought, wow this is a little bit of overkill," Butcher said.

"And then Sackville turned into a hotspot, and I have been so incredibly thankful that we have them. And I think that parents are feeling the same way."

Allison Butcher, head teacher and director of Playschool Inc. in Sackville, says the group was able to raise enough money to keep the school open. But she said, “we’re not out of the woods by any means, it will be a very long time, if ever that we are able to recoup what’s lost.” (CBC)

Butcher, who is also a councillor, told Information Morning Moncton that rapid testing for children in these settings needs to be handled very carefully.

"I know that I would not want to be doing these rapid tests on preschoolers — they're not as invasive as a PCR test, but they still involve sticking a pointy object up your nose," she said. "I would never suggest that I should be providing rapid tests to someone else's children."

Butcher said she's also unsure about giving them to parents to test their own small children.

"Maybe that's something that should be left up to a professional," she said.

Provincial direction on rapid testing

In New Brunswick, Public Health has distributed more than 586,000 rapid test kits through its workplace COVID-19 Point of Care Testing program as of Oct. 1.

A separate program for eligible non-profit organizations, charities and Indigenous community organizations with workers based in New Brunswick is co-ordinated with the Canadian Red Cross.

According to the federal Public Health Agency, the federal government has provided New Brunswick with 1.8 million rapid COVID-19 tests as of Oct. 1. Of these, 260,711 tests have been sent to the destination where they are ready to be deployed.

However, only 24,198 tests have been reported as having been used as of Oct. 1, agency media relations advisor Andre Gagnon confirmed Wednesday.

He noted that data would be updated on Friday.

Education Minister Dominic Cardy said the government's approach is to dole out the tests in targeted areas instead of blitzing them out all at once, because of "long-term issues around supply."

The federal government has indicated it's prepared to help address those issues.

Last Friday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had a telephone meeting with Premier Blaine Higgs to discuss the rising number of COVID-19 cases in New Brunswick, among other issues.

Trudeau "emphasized that the Government of Canada remains ready to respond to any requests from the Government of New Brunswick, supplying additional rapid testing kits," according to a news release.

Some experts have also called for wider use of rapid tests in the province, saying they could slow down transmission by identifying asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic people and helping to prevent spread.

"I think it would be unwise to say that today's the rainiest of all possible days — things could definitely be much more difficult," Cardy said. 

"We want to be in a position to have the schools open as much as possible and as safe as possible, because all the evidence from WHO and the other agencies says keeping schools open has to be one of the main priorities in the pandemic."

Looking to Nova Scotia's example

In Nova Scotia, health authorities are making rapid COVID-19 tests available to residents over age 16 who do not have symptoms, have not travelled, have not visited a potential exposure location, and have not been in contact with someone who has tested positive.

The province also launched a pilot project at the end of September, in which it gave out four free rapid tests to any families that want them and that had children in pre-primary grades to Grade 6.

Gadd said she's hopeful the province follows Nova Scotia's example and moves beyond its current "reactive" stance on rapid testing.

"It's not using rapid testing to its fullest potential," she said. 

"We could be more broadly screening all the five- to 11-year-olds on an ongoing regular basis to catch some of these exposures in the morning before that kid goes to school, before that exposure even happens."


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