Province pans calls for rapid testing of staff at care homes

A call to use rapid COVID-19 tests to screen long-term care staff was panned by the province’s top doctor and health minister on Monday.

“It is not a panacea,” provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said of the tests. “It is not what is going to solve our issues because the tests have faults and limitations and you have to test everybody every day.”

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B.C. seniors advocate Isobel Mackenzie and Terry Lake, president of the B.C. Care Providers Association, are leading the call for use of the rapid tests in long-term care, arguing they could complement current screening measures.

Both Mackenzie and Lake acknowledge the rapid tests are not as sensitive as the gold-standard polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, lab tests, which take 24 hours for results.

But, they say, they could still help to pick up some asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic people.

According to provincial data, almost 1,000 people connected to long-term care in B.C. have active cases of COVID-19, including 583 residents and 365 staff members, and most people who have died of COVID-19 in the province have been seniors and elders.

Mackenzie said the rapid tests, which produce results in minutes, would be an added layer of protection. They are already being used in airports and sports leagues, and on movie sets, and Ontario is recruiting long-term care facilities to take part in a program of rapid testing.

“Right now there is no testing of asymptomatic staff in care homes. They are tested when they show symptoms,” she said. “If that was a completely effective strategy, we wouldn’t be seeing the outbreaks we are seeing.”

The Vancouver Coastal and Fraser health regions have been hardest hit, and Mackenzie said use of the tests could be focused there to start.

The province has about 50,000 rapid tests, which cost about $5 each, she said, and there are about 35,000 staff who directly work with long-term care residents in the province.

Dix said nothing is being spared in the fight to prevent and stop transmissions in care homes. The province has put millions into hiring staff for screening, purchasing sanitization equipment, and ensuring health care workers staff only a single site since the pandemic began. Other measures have included increased cleaning and a restriction on outside visitors, along with screening, masks, and temperature checks for staff.

“Not a day goes by when we don’t talk about what more we can do to address the situation in long-term care and we going to continue to do that in every moment and every step,” he said.

Still, Lake, a former B.C. Liberal health minister, argues some health care workers are “blindly” going into work with the virus.

“Why not add on one other piece of valuable information that helps you protect people?” he said.

Henry said rapid testing is not at the point where it would be helpful beyond the screening already done, and asked health care workers to be mindful of what they are doing outside of work to avoid getting sick.

“We have protocols that do work,” she said, adding that staff are tested when there are outbreaks. She noted the rapid tests the province has use long nasal swab tests that are uncomfortable, especially if done routinely.

Mike Old of the Hospital Employees’ Union, which represents more than 20,000 members working in seniors care, said workers are “holding their breath,” hoping that new public health measures will reduce the impact of the second wave on long-term care residents.

Old said officials are focusing available testing capacity where it’s needed most, based on public health evidence.

“I’d expect that long-term care homes will be good candidates for routine rapid testing, if the effectiveness of the available tests is confirmed by public health officials, and when we have the capacity to carry them out,” he said.

ceharnett@timescolonist.com

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