Songbird Hyris bCUBE rapid test (Source: Songbird Life Science)

The Manitoba government has announced a new pilot COVID-19 testing site that will provide rapid tests for teachers and school staff.

Health and Seniors Care Minister Heather Stefanson and Education Minister Cliff Cullen made the announcement Thursday saying the site will be called Fast Pass and it is an appointment-based location.

"Offering a dedicated testing stream to people working in schools will allow us to quickly identify any cases of COVID-19," said Stefanson, who noted this will lead to faster contact tracing and reduce the community spread.

"The launch of our first Fast Pass site will provide our education system with the reassurance that there is a dedicated testing option to support timely access to COVID-19 results."

The site will open on Jan. 18 at 1066 Nairn Ave. in Winnipeg. It will initially be open to staff who work in the Winnipeg, Seven Oaks, River East Transcona, Seine River, and Hanover school divisions.

The province said other school divisions will be allowed to use the site in February.

It will be open from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. every day and there will be a specific entrance for Fast Pass appointments.

During the first week of opening, the province said there will be roughly 20 to 40 slots open each day and that will grow to 80 by the second week and the hope is to eventually ramp up to 160 tests a day.

"We want teachers and school staff to be able to focus on their students and to continue providing quality education to our young Manitobans," said Cullen.

With the rapid testing available, the teachers and school staff will be able to see the results of their tests the very same day online. If they receive a positive test, they must self-isolate until they receive their results.

Dr. Jazz Atwal, the acting deputy chief provincial public health officer, noted in a teleconference on Thursday that even if staff receive a negative test they must still isolate until all symptoms are gone.

"If someone is sick, this is symptomatic testing on an individual, when they do get tested symptomatically, they still have to wait until they are symptom-free for 24 hours before returning to regular activities," said Atwal.

He added that schools are safe in Manitoba and this is another tool to help mitigate COVID-19.

The province did note wait times could be longer during the beginning of the pilot project.

There is a chance the project could be expanded to other Manitoba locations such as Winkler and Brandon, depending on how the first pilot project goes.

Like other tests, staff members who get the rapid test will receive a deep nasal swab administered by a health professional at the testing site.

Tests will be processed using the Songbird Hyris bCUBE rapid test device.

The move is being welcomed by the Manitoba Teachers’ Society.

“There’s a huge anxiety level when you’ve been told there’s a possible exposure,” said teachers’ society president James Bedford. “One of the big advantages, we were told, is this will improve contact tracing and we’ve certainly expressed some concerns about the extent of contact tracing.”

Brian O’Leary, superintendent of the Seven Oaks School Division, said the rapid tests could help mitigate long disruptions for teachers and students caused by absences for self-isolation.

“Where it’ll help us and help kids is if someone’s symptomatic, then they’re staying home for an extended period or they’re going to get tested and that can often be three or four days,” said O’Leary. “With this, when it’s fully rolled out, education staff should be getting results within a day.”

Experts applaud the move but say the province could do even more.

Ali Asgray, an associate professor in disaster and emergency management at York University, is one of four researchers who developed a simulation tool for COVID-19 testing in schools. 

Their study published recently in BMC Public Health found testing one or two students per classroom each day could help keep transmission rates stable.

“It is important for us to capture asymptomatic cases as well as those symptomatic,” said Asgray.