Emergency room doctor, teacher call for rapid antigen testing in B.C. schools

An emergency room physician at St. Paul's Hospital is calling on the B.C. government to join other provinces and launch a school-based rapid antigen testing program for students.

Dr. Shannon O’Donnell’s children attend Capilano Elementary in North Vancouver, where five classes have been impacted by recent COVID-19 exposures. One division is now in a two week quarantine, and the other four are still attending class, but have been told to self-monitor for symptoms.

“It’s a perfect opportunity to add this layer of protection for the kids who are asked to monitor for symptoms,” said O’Donnell. “If their family received 10 or 14 days of tests, then they could test the child each day at home before sending them to school.”

Paul Tupper, an infectious disease modeller at Simon Fraser University, agrees. “If we are concerned enough about a kid that we are asking them to self-monitor, I think that’s a good enough reason to ask them to take a rapid test,” he said.

This week, the governments of Ontario, Quebec and Alberta all announced new or expanded rapid antigen testing in schools. They’re already in use in Saskatchewan and Nova Scotia.

“I think B.C. should completely do it,“ said Burnaby teacher Jennifer Heighton. “Especially in a school that is having some positive cases. I think rapid testing in the classroom where those cases have been found would give parents the peace of mind to know whether or not their child might have it.”

The education minister says the province is already offering take home gargle tests to students who have COVID symptoms at school. But those are PCR tests, and need to be sent to a lab.

“The problem with PCR tests is for one, they’re expensive, and we learn the results a couple days later. And that’s often too slow to really stop transmission from happening, because we know children or anyone can transit COVID without symptoms,” said Tupper.

O’Donnell says the take home rapid tests are simple for parents, with results in about 15 minutes. While B.C.’s health minister says Canada is experiencing a shortage of rapid tests, other provinces appear to be sourcing a supply for schools, and using them to screen students after classroom exposures.

“I think it’s the perfect scenario, we have been using it in health care facilities when we get outbreaks there,” said O’Donnell.

She’s relieved her children aren’t in the four classrooms that have been told to self-monitor at Capilano Elementary. But O’Donnell believes rapid testing is needed for the students that are.

“I feel better that they’re all in masks now, “ she said. “But definitely having that available, it just makes sense.”