How rapid test kits have been working in Yukon First Nation communities

The Council of Yukon First Nations received its first shipment of rapid antigen tests in September. Mathieya Alatini says it's "really helped stop the spread" of COVID-19.

Since October, Yukon First Nations have made rapid tests available to their citizens

The Council of Yukon First Nations' Mathieya Alatini said providing First Nation citizens with rapid antigen tests allowed their communities to catch a lot of COVID-19 cases before people developed symptoms, and helped limit the spread. (Yukon Liberal Party)

While access to rapid test kits in the Yukon had been previously limited before this week, that hasn't been the case in all communities.

The Yukon government announced Monday that people in Whitehorse with suspected COVID-19 symptoms can now pick up free antigen rapid test kits. It comes after the territorial government announced last week that anyone with COVID-19 symptoms should assume they are infected and isolate immediately, rather than get a PCR test. 

It also comes as cases in the Yukon continue to surge. As of Tuesday, there are at least 456 active COVID-19 cases territory-wide, 123 more than Monday's count. There are many other cases that are not being diagnosed too, the territory has previously warned.

But for the last few months, the Council of Yukon First Nations have made rapid tests available to their citizens.

Mathieya Alatini, the Council of Yukon First Nations' COVID-19 coordinator, said it's been working with the Public Health Agency of Canada since mid-September and received its first shipment of rapid antigen tests in late September. The tests were dispersed in early October to all the Yukon First Nation communities.

CBC's Leonard Linklater, host of Midday Cafe, spoke with Alatini about how the rapid tests have been working in First Nation communities.

'Really helped stop the spread'

Alatini said the testing program has been used as part of their asymptomatic surveillance testing, which worked particularly well for the Delta variant, she said.

"We were catching a lot of cases before people had symptoms in the communities," she said. "That has really helped stop the spread in the community."

Anecdotally, she said with the Omicron variant, they are noticing people get symptoms around day three and often testing positive by day five.

"This is where ... ensuring that people have enough tests to do at least two tests per week is coming in handy," she said.

When it comes to the accuracy of the rapid tests, Alatini said they're generally accurate, but it does come down to timing — she said with Omicron, people begin to show symptoms first and then test positive. 

"It's just a little bit of a delay in when ... you experience symptoms [and] when you're testing positive," she said. "It's pointing to the need to have more than one test per week, especially if you've been exposed or experiencing symptoms."

Alatini said the tests are especially important in communities that have a lower vaccination rate.

She believes its helped slow the spread in communities and help prevent deaths or serious illnesses.

The tests are one more tool in the toolbox, she added, on top of using masks, hand sanitizing and keeping distance from people.

"We're communal people; we gather, we have multi-generational households," she said. "Let's try to use all the tools that are available to us in order to keep our our elders safe and our babies safe and our households safe."

People in Whitehorse who have COVID-19 symptoms, but who don't meet the Yukon government's threshold for a laboratory PCR test, can now pick up an at-home testing kit instead at the drive-thru testing site at the Takhini Arena. (Wayne Vallevand/CBC)

More test distribution to First Nation members in Whitehorse on Thursday

Alatini said Yukon First Nations have been accessing the tests through the National Microbiology Laboratory, part of the Public Health Agency of Canada, which has a program for northern remote and Indigenous communities.

She said they have enough on hand to distribute rapid tests to each Yukon First Nation community for the rest of the month and for February, for at least two tests per person, per household.

For communities that don't have an office in Whitehorse or their offices are closed, rapid antigen tests are being provided to First Nation members that live in Whitehorse.

On Thursday, between 1 p.m. and 4 p.m., test will be distributed with enough kits for two tests per person, per household for First Nation members via a drive-by pickup in the Kwanlin Dün Cultural Centre roundabout.

People will have to provide their name, contact information, and the First Nation they're from, along with the number of people in their household.

New rapid test distribution in Whitehorse

Meanwhile in Whitehorse, Amy Riske, an assistant deputy minister with Yukon's health department, said people from the general public going to pick up test kits will be asked if they have symptoms, or whether they are picking up a test for someone with symptoms. However, there won't be a formal vetting process.

"We fully believe in Yukoners operating in a community manner and recognizing that this first access of supply is to help support people who have symptoms who want to know if indeed they have COVID or not," she said.

Riske said supply of the rapid antigen home base tests "is very pressured across the country right now," which is why the territory is focused on getting rapid tests to the people that have the highest need: those with symptoms.

People who don't have a vehicle can walk through the drive-thru testing site, she added, or have someone else pick up a test for them. Tests will be available for pick-up at the drive-thru testing site at the Takhini Arena between 7:30 a.m. and 3 p.m.

Officials are working on a plan to allocate a portion of the rapid tests for people without symptoms, Riske added.

Dr. Catherine Elliott, the territory's acting chief medical officer of health, noted last week during a media briefing that the rapid tests are not as sensitive as PCR tests and that a negative result doesn't necessarily mean you do not have COVID-19. On the other hand, a positive test on a rapid kit means you are positive.

Written by Amy Tucker, with files from Leonard Linklater and Jackie Hong