Ministry staff refuse to answer questions as B.C. health researchers offered rapid tests for a party
Ministry of Health staff are denying that some health researchers were promised rapid antigen tests to screen for COVID-19 at a Christmas party, even though CTV News Vancouver has obtained the internal memo outlining the plan.
In total, three questions were posed to the ministry, and despite follow-up attempts to address the quantity, distribution and availability of rapid tests, communications staff did not respond.
The provincial government will not provide rapid antigen tests to the public despite having millions in storage, but in an email about a holiday party the BC Centre of Substance Use told employees that “as part of the safety planning, (Providence Health Care) will be supplying us with rapid COVID tests” for their in-person gathering next week.
“No, that is incorrect, BCCSU is not being provided rapid tests for their holiday party,” insisted a Ministry of Health spokesperson nearly six hours after CTV News referenced the memo in an email inquiring about rapid tests. The questions CTV News asked were:
- How many rapid tests are going to health authorities or other government ministries and agencies for holiday parties?
- Public Health Agency of Canada data shows two million rapid tests provided by the federal government have not been distributed in B.C. Is that accurate?
- How and why has the province kept B.C. pharmacies from selling the tests here?
TOP DOCTOR DEFENDS RAPID TEST STRATEGY
While the ministry refused to answer those questions, the provincial health officer shot down the idea of providing families with rapid tests ahead of the holiday season, pointing out she has decided that the federally-provided tests will only be used in certain situations – typically for people who have COVID-19 symptoms.
"I think my focus is on where they make a difference in terms of a parent assessing whether a child should go into school today. We've been using them in more remote communities where access to PCR testing can be a challenge,” said Dr. Bonnie Henry on Tuesday, adding they’re also being used for care home visitors and occasionally in school outbreaks and other situations.
“We are looking at whether it makes sense to have rapid tests available for people … It is an evolving issue.”
Henry insisted there are not enough rapid tests, but the province has not been distributing the units provided by the federal government, so it’s likely the federal government has not bothered sending more with so many unused and belated use of the ones that have been distributed.
B.C. has received 3.2 million rapid antigen tests and distributed 1.17 million, while Ontario has received 31 million from the federal government and distributed 33 million; that province’s population is roughly triple British Columbia’s.
RAPID TESTS ‘NOT A SILVER BULLET’
One of the most high-profile proponents of rapid testing, who’s guided Nova Scotia’s implementation of the technology, pointed out that rapid tests alone cannot curb or avoid infections.
“They’re not a silver bullet,” said Dr. Lisa Barrett, an infectious disease specialist and professor at Dalhousie University.
“But it's a tool worth considering and we have tonnes of people who tell us 'there's no way I'm getting vaccinated’ and they come and get tests all the time."
Barrett described a culture shift in her province, where the tests are readily available to take home or administer at various testing sites, providing results in less than half an hour in a de-medicalized procedure. Most people self-administer the test, which is not much different than taking a blood-glucose reading.
When CTV News raised Henry’s objection to the technology on the grounds the tests don’t find many cases, Barrett said it’s true that there haven’t been huge numbers of cases identified, but said the constant asymptomatic testing and monitoring for cases has helped. She also emphasized “testing will never take the place of basic public health measures,” including a robust vaccination campaign and consistent rules around distancing and indoor mask-wearing.
“Having early asymptomatic testing has been helpful,” Barrett said. “About 20 per cent of early cases through wave three were found in no-symptom testing before lots and lots of contacts."
And while she emphasized that rapid tests alone are not a panacea and won’t be required forever, she said they’re a useful tool right now for people who want to feel like they’re contributing in the battle to curb infection and help avoid exposing seniors and other high-risk people to the virus. Nova Scotia is currently ramping up its campaign to encourage people to take testing kits home before the holidays.
“It’s important when we’re trying to have a goal of keeping things at a low community virus level,” said Barrett, saying the tests provide many people with peace of mind.
“We’re not quite at what we call the endemic stage, thinking of this as just a cold virus.”
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