Whistler hotel worker who tested positive for COVID-19 frustrated by lack of rapid testing
VANCOUVER -- Philip Johnson doesn't know how he got COVID-19.
The Whistler hotel worker lives with four roommates, one of whom has also tested positive for the coronavirus. His girlfriend, who lives separately, also tested positive.
"Prior to getting sick, everything seemed pretty normal," Johnson told CTV News Vancouver. "Just one morning I woke up kind of not feeling normal, not super sick, just didn't really think anything of it. And then the next day I woke up with a blinding headache and decided to go get tested."
He went for his test on Monday, Jan. 25. The next day, he got his positive result, and on Wednesday he got a call from provincial contact tracers, who asked him where he had gone and what he had done over the preceding seven days.
"They assumed I got it Thursday or Friday," Johnson said. "All I did was go to work and stay home, because that's what we're being told to do."
Like numerous other Whistler residents, Johnson and his roommates spent the end of January self-isolating because of COVID-19.
From Jan. 1 through Feb. 2, the resort municipality had seen 547 people test positive for the coronavirus, Health Minister Adrian Dix said Friday. That's more than double the 271 cases recorded there throughout all of 2020.
Dix said the majority of the infections in the region have been found in young people in their 20s and 30s "who live, work and socialize together."
"Almost all of the recent cases are associated with transmissions occurring within households and social settings, according to our contact tracing," Dix said.
Several local businesses have been the subject of COVID-19 exposure notices, and some of them have closed temporarily as a precaution. Meanwhile, Johnson says Whistler Blackcomb is packed, and he doesn't see much physical distancing in the lift lines.
Tourism Whistler has previously told CTV News that hotel occupancy in the municipality is at just 27 per cent of normal, and that almost 90 per cent of bookings are from B.C. residents.
Johnson's personal experience, observations and research have led him to the conclusion that a different approach is needed.
He told CTV News he'd like to see Whistler - and B.C. more broadly - use regular rapid testing to detect COVID-19 infections, particularly among people who are asymptomatic or haven't yet developed symptoms.
Johnson cited the example of Nova Scotia, where health officials set up rapid testing facilities and have been encouraging people to make regular asymptomatic testing part of their routine.
"That would've made a huge difference with what's happening in Whistler," he said. "With rapid testing you can test asymptomatic people. It's a screening process. It's not a confirmation tool."
He envisioned a world in which pop-up testing centres are available for anyone who wants to use them, offering a positive or negative result in 15 minutes and allowing visitors and residents to display proof of a negative test before entering a restaurant or other business.
Such testing would be voluntary, but people would be encouraged to get tested regularly, Johnson said.
"If someone wants to travel, they're going to be willing to do the test," he said. "If someone wants to go out to eat, they're realistically probably going to do a test to go do it. I feel people want to do the right thing, it's just that the testing is not available."
B.C. has so far refrained from widespread use of rapid testing, citing concerns about the accuracy of the tests as well as the investment of workers' time required to administer them. Dix has previously gone so far as to say it's "not realistic" to implement a testing regime of the type Johnson and other rapid testing advocates would like to see.
Rapid tests are less accurate than PCR tests, but Johnson argues accuracy issues can be overcome with regular screening.
Indeed, recent modelling by researchers at Simon Fraser University, which assumed a 90 per cent accuracy rate for rapid tests, suggested that testing staff members at long-term care homes every three days could have prevented roughly half of all deaths in such facilities in B.C. in 2020.
B.C. has used rapid tests in a number of pilot projects, including at Vancouver International Airport and some care homes. The province also recently used the tests to screen 80 students and staff members at Garibaldi Secondary School in Maple Ridge after an exposure involving one of the new coronavirus variants.
Johnson said he doesn't believe mass rapid testing should replace physical distancing, hand-washing and mask-wearing, but he does believe it should play a key role in B.C.'s response to the pandemic.
"There was a scenario about a month ago where my roommate was at a bar and received a notice of a case being there, and I tried to do the right thing and try to go get tested because if I was positive then I didn't want to spread it," he said. "They wouldn't test me because I didn't have any symptoms."
Rapid testing would have been an ideal option in that situation, Johnson said. For him, the fact that it wasn't available suggests a lack of effort on the part of B.C. health officials.
"It doesn't seem like they're trying to throw everything at this pandemic," he said. "They're just assuming that this won't work and just not doing it."