Saskatchewan

U of Sask student, epidemiologist team up to track Canada's rapid test results, fill COVID-19 data gaps

With more people using rapid antigen tests over PCR tests, a student and epidemiologist at the University of Saskatchewan have come together to track rapid test results. The goal: collect data missing from official reporting on COVID-19.

COVID-19 tracker website already collects COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations

With more people using rapid antigen tests over PCR tests, a student and epidemiologist at the University of Saskatchewan have worked together to track rapid test results, aiming to collect data missing from official reports. (David Horemans/CBC)

An online tool made by a University of Saskatchewan student could offer a clearer picture of  how COVID-19 is spreading in Canada, by tracking results from rapid tests across the country.

Last month, the Saskatchewan government joined some other provinces in encouraging residents to use rapid antigen tests, which can be taken at home, instead of seeking out a PCR test, unless their symptoms are severe.

The PCR, or polymerase chain reaction, tests given at provincial testing sites are considered more accurate, but the province has said the shift to relying on rapid tests was needed to help preserve PCR testing capacity for high-risk populations.

However, that's left gaps in the official data, according to U of S epidemiologist Nazeem Muhajarine.

Only cases confirmed through PCR tests are included in the official COVID-19 numbers reported by the province.

But Muhajarine estimates that for every positive PCR test, there are two positive rapid test results that go unreported.

"It compromises the understanding of the COVID-19 disease distribution in our province and in our country, so I think that it's a huge issue," Muhajarine said.

Nazeem Muhajarine, an epidemiologist at the University of Saskatchewan, says the lack of official reporting on positive results from rapid tests for COVID-19 compromises the understanding of how the illness is being spread. (Submitted by University of Saskatchewan)

So he reached out to Noah Little, a biomedical neuroscience student at the U of S who created an online COVID-19 tracker.

The website already records cases and vaccine rates across Canada — and now, it's tracking rapid test results as well.

Little's new tracker allows people to anonymously report their positive rapid test results by entering their postal code, age and the day they took the test.

"What this does is it adds it to a database of rapid test results that can be used for research and can be used to better understand these gaps in data," he said.

Little said he's been interested in adding the rapid test results to his site since noticing other jurisdictions were pointing people to the at-home rapid tests over PCR tests.

He added that it only took about a day after Muhajarine reached out last week before he got the first prototype up online.

LISTEN | The Morning Edition's Stefani Langenegger speaks with COVID-19 Tracker creator Noah Little: 

The Saskatchewan government is asking for people with mild symptoms of COVID-19 to do at-home rapid tests instead of PCR tests - to protect testing and lab capacity. That means daily case numbers may be missing a big chunk of the population with COVID-19. A Saskatchewan epidemiologist has asked a student to close that gap in data.

Little says since then, roughly 1,000 people a day have submitted their rapid test results through the site — both positive and negative, which helps to monitor test positivity rates.

"The more people who are able to submit to this, the more complete picture we'll get of the [COVID-19] spread in Canada," he said.

Little said the statistics are currently being plugged into spreadsheets. By next week, he plans to turn those numbers into an online dashboard — similar to how he's helped people visualize the official case and hospitalization data.

Corrections

  • An earlier version of this story said that since last week, roughly 1,000 people had submitted their rapid test results through the site. In fact, Noah Little said roughly 1,000 people per day have submitted results.
    Jan 14, 2022 4:50 PM CT

With files from The Morning Edition

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