LILLEY: Don’t play political games with COVID testing in schools

Use rapid tests wisely and judiciously to keep schools open but don’t make policy based on feelings or political posturing

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The Ford government is being urged to ignore the experts, to dismiss the science and do what parents want when it comes to rapid testing in schools.

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Despite Public Health Ontario, the Ontario Science Table, Chief Medical Officer Dr. Kieran Moore and most public health doctors advising against widespread use of rapid tests, the call is to ditch the science and do what people want.

Groups of parents in Toronto have been able to get their hands on rapid tests and are trying to screen as many students as they can to show that schools aren’t safe. The problem is, schools are safe, infection rates are low, and used in this fashion, the tests are unreliable.

According to Public Health Ontario (PHO), these tests are 50-50 at best with adults but even worse at detecting infection among children.

“The sensitivity of currently available antigen tests is estimated at 50% in asymptomatic individuals (based on a one-time test), with lower sensitivity anticipated in children and with home-based testing,” PHO states in their most recent report on the matter.

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Public health officials have long warned that widespread testing in areas without significant community transmission would lead to a high degree of false positive tests.

“If 500,000 students are screened a day, there will be between 500 and 2,500 false positive results,” the PHO report states.

Each of those students deemed COVID positive by a rapid test would then have to undergo a PCR test to confirm the infection.

The province isn’t against using tests to screen in schools, in fact, they did so last school year in areas where community transmission was high and it looks like they will adopt a similar policy this year.

Dr. Kieran Moore, Ontario’s chief medical officer of health, speaks during a press conference regarding COVID-19 at Queen’s Park in Toronto on Wednesday, September 29, 2021.
Dr. Kieran Moore, Ontario’s chief medical officer of health, speaks during a press conference regarding COVID-19 at Queen’s Park in Toronto on Wednesday, September 29, 2021. Photo by Evan Buhler /THE CANADIAN PRESS

Speaking to reporters on Wednesday, Moore said he is looking at a risk-based strategy – meaning, put tests in schools where they are needed and will be useful rather than in every classroom.

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“We are reviewing asymptomatic testing and its possible application to schools across Ontario, especially in high-risk settings where there’s been previous outbreaks or where there’s high risk of community spread,” Moore said.

Provincial officials say they will have details on this plan soon but that’s not good enough for the opposition parties who suddenly don’t think following doctors’ orders is proper procedure. NDP Leader Andrea Horwath put this down to Premier Doug Ford being cheap.

“Student cases are rising, but Ford is still pinching pennies, leaving kids and schools to pay the price. We need every tool to avoid school closures,” Horwath said.

Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca acknowledged that the scientific evidence may not support widespread use of rapid tests but said it should happen anyway to make parents feel better.

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“I think it would go a long way to giving moms and dads peace of mind,” Del Duca said.

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Yes, ladies and gentlemen, this is where we are at in dealing with the pandemic in Ontario, base your policy on emotion, not facts or data. The opposition and their friends in the media beg Ford to ‘follow the science’ and when he does, they say, ‘Not that science, just do what we want.’

The guidance document released by Public Health Ontario looked at the experience with in-school testing across the province as well as in American, Australian and European settings. The evidence does not support sending tests to every school or even most schools.

Keeping schools safe and open during this pandemic is an important job — Ontario’s children can’t face another prolonged closure. Use rapid tests wisely and judiciously to keep schools open but don’t make policy based on feelings or political posturing.

Decisions on how to keep schools open and safe should be based on the best evidence.

blilley@postmedia.com

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