Hamilton’s first-ever “targeted” rapid COVID-19 tests for staff and students from four city schools turned up no positive cases during a pair of clinics on the weekend, according to public health.
Medical officer of health Dr. Elizabeth Richardson said 21 eligible staff and 65 students were tested during a seven-hour campaign at Bishop Ryan Catholic Secondary and Orchard Park Secondary on Saturday.
Students and staff from Eastdale Elementary School and Winona Elementary School were also given the option to register for a rapid test at Orchard Park.
“There were no positive test results, so there are zero presumptive positive cases,” Richardson said during the city’s weekly pandemic update on Tuesday.
The clinics ran from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Feb. 13 and had the capacity for 400 Panbio COVID-19 Antigen rapid tests – which can be analyzed on-site and produce results within 20 minutes.
The clinics were a part of the ministry of education’s plan to test asymptomatic students and staff in schools across the province at potential hot spots or schools in outbreaks.
The sites chosen targeted those who had limited access to testing from regions with higher rates of illness and outbreaks, according to Richardson.
“So it looks like the right people are going to get tested at the right time,” said Richardson. “It absolutely does not mean that people in these areas should let their guard down.”
On Tuesday, the province said it would be making a push for more voluntary COVID-19 testing in schools advising some of the larger boards that at least five per cent of their elementary and secondary schools will need to be tested weekly.
In a memo to the school boards, the ministry said two per cent of student populations need to be tested which equates to five schools every seven days in the Hamilton Wentworth District School Board (HWDBS) and three in the Hamilton Wentworth Catholic District School Board (HWCDBS).
School boards with fewer than 10 schools will not be subject to the five per cent target, according to the province.
“So we are trying to create a more rapid, nimble system where we’re able to move into these schools having week to week plans in place to do it,” education minister Stephen Lecce said in a scrum after question period on Tuesday.
The ministry has set a start date of Feb. 22 for school boards outside of Toronto, York and Peel and is offering a combination of rapid antigen and polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests.
The boards are being asked to prioritize schools in areas of high transmission, high case numbers, and where access to current testing programs may be challenging.
Richardson says the gold standard for testing is still those offered by the city’s fixed assessment centres and says the rapid antigen tests are likely best used for asymptomatic groups that would have difficulty accessing standard diagnostic testing for the coronavirus.
“There’s a lot of questions around asymptomatic testing in general. We use asymptomatic testing. We think about it in cancer screening and pap testing and those kinds of things. We don’t generally look at it in infectious diseases in this way.”
Students who test positive on an antigen test are then referred for confirmatory PCR testing. Should that test confirm a positive case, the individual must remain in isolation and cannot return to school until cleared by public health.
School boards will be expected to submit testing plans each week to the province and report on testing activities.
HWCDBS chair Pat Daly says their board is already coordinating future clinics with public health at other Catholic school sites.
“This testing initiative, along with other recent health and safety measures, are welcome additions and provide another layer of protection as our schools reopen for in-person learning,” Daly told Global News.
The ministry also revealed that voluntary in-pharmacy testing for asymptomatic school staff will be available at select locations across the province on Feb. 19.
In a partnership with several Toronto hospitals, the ministry is also looking at expanded testing opportunities including take-home oral-nasal testing kits for students. Sixteen schools in Toronto have already employed the measure as of Wednesday.
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