Saskatoon

No plans for widespread COVID-19 testing at schools, but overall daily capacity increasing to 4K

The Ministry of Health has asked the Saskatchewan Health Authority to increase its daily testing capacity to 4,000 by the time children return to school on Sept. 1, but the SHA says "this is not necessarily due to schools starting."

Sask. doctor and former deputy medical health officer says proactive testing would help reduce spread

A nurse at the William Osler Health System administers a test for COVID-19 at a drive-through assessment centre in Toronto in April. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

The Ministry of Health has asked the Saskatchewan Health Authority to increase its daily testing capacity to 4,000 by the time children return to school on Sept. 1, but the SHA says "this is not necessarily due to schools starting."

Premier Scott Moe said on July 23 Saskatchewan had a testing capacity of between about 1,800 and 2,000. On Aug. 1, 2,104 tests were performed in the province — the highest daily testing number to date. 

On Aug. 4 the provincial government released its Safe Schools Plan, which leaves decisions about precautions such as mask use and temperature testing up to individual school divisions in the first phase of reopening. 

The plan does not include any specific information about how contact tracing will occur when a case is identified at a school, or how frequently testing will be conducted and under what circumstances.

Last week it was criticized by the Saskatchewan Medical Association for not being "more directive" about mask use for students during the first phase of re-opening. 

On Monday the Saskatchewan Health Authority provided some details about its approach to testing. It said there are currently no plans to conduct widespread or outreach testing. 

"At this time, we are only considering testing individual students if needed at schools, not establishing mass testing sites," said the SHA response. 

Regarding contact tracing, the Ministry of Health said there is already an established process. 

I think we could be innovative and bring the testing kit and the set up to the schools.- Dr. Anne Huang, former Sask. deputy medical health officer

"If a student tests positive for COVID-19, the other students will be asked to self-monitor, and self-isolate and get tested at the first sign of even mild symptoms," it said in an emailed response to questions. 

"Schools will work with families/parents of younger children to help inform other classmates of potential contact if there is a positive case." 

Daily testing capacity ramps up

At the request of the Ministry of Health, the SHA is increasing its daily testing capacity to 3,000 by mid-August, and 4,000 by Sept. 1. 

It said children who have symptoms that could be COVID-19 will have to get tested and self-isolate at home until they get their results. 

The SHA said last week it is hiring 90 staff — 45 full time and 45 part time — to address delays of up to five days for referrals and testing through its 811 HealthLine. 

Parents will not have to self-isolate if their child is at home unless they develop symptoms. 

Proactive testing would help reduce spread: Former deputy MHO

Dr. Anne Huang, a former deputy medical health officer for Saskatchewan and Health Canada, said more widespread, proactive testing at schools would help identify cases earlier and reduce transmission.  

"I think we could be innovative and bring the testing kit and the set up to the schools with outreach nurses who can conduct testing on the site," said Huang. 

"If we were to do this on a regular basis in well-selected locations it will give us actually a proactive surveillance that indicates whether you are getting additional cases that wouldn't have been detected otherwise if we had waited for people to show up and get sick." 

She said that would also help reduce reliance on the 811 HealthLine, which has been strained by increasing demand for testing. 

Huang said there is also an existing reporting system used by schools to report cases of influenza-like symptoms that could be utilized for COVID-19 testing. 

Although she said not all schools are involved in this, the ones that do participate test students who have influenza-like symptoms to determine if they have influenza or another cold virus. 

Existing surveillance for influenza could be 'great opportunity'

"I think that actually would be a great opportunity to leverage the existing influenza sentinel surveillance system, for a COVID-19 surveillance system, starting in the fall as soon as the school starts and that would give us an indication of potential increased activity," she said. 

Doctors in hospitals are also asked to test for and report influenza cases in patients of all ages, she said. 

A total 506 confirmed cases of influenza were detected among preschool children aged five and under between Sept. 1, 2019, and March 21, 2020. 

Another 549 were confirmed among school students aged between five and 19, while 928 were detected among working adults aged 20-64. There were 564 cases among seniors aged 65 and older. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Alicia Bridges is a former CBC Saskatoon reporter who is now working in Australia.

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