B.C.’s rapid test capacity for pre-symptom COVID-19 detection is being tested in health care and for high-risk rural populations, but the tests aren’t licensed for wider-scale use to protect senior homes from infection, Health Minister Adrian Dix says.
With B.C.’s coronavirus infection and death rate climbing, particularly in care facilities, the opposition B.C. Liberals took up the issue of rapid testing of care home staff that was proposed in November by Seniors Advocate Isobel Mackenzie. Questioned about the issue as a brief session of the legislature began this week, Dix said better protection of seniors in care is the highest priority, but the available rapid tests in B.C. won’t do the job.
“The rapid tests that have been sent to us are not successful or effective in dealing with asymptomatic testing and, in any event, haven’t been sent to us in the numbers available to put in place such a system. It would not be effective,” Dix told the legislature Dec. 8. “That said, as with everything else, we are trying absolutely everything, including a pilot project, to see in what ways they could be effective in our province. Rapid testing is also being used and being piloted in other areas where vulnerable people live, from the Downtown Eastside to rural communities.”
Interim B.C. Liberal leader Shirley Bond said the announcement this week of the province’s pilot program in a small number of long-term care homes brings hope to residents and their families in a frightening situation.
Dix replied that the Mackenzie’s position is understood, but she is not qualified to make decisions in technical public health issues such as rapid testing. He said the best strategy to stop the spiral of infection and death in care homes is vaccination, which the province will start to roll out next week, with care home staff and residents at the top of the list.
“We have been using rapid tests in appropriate circumstances, and that action is guided by the leading experts in public health that we have,” Dix said. “With great respect to the seniors advocate, who the leader of the opposition cites as evidence, this is not her area of expertise. The fact is that the rapid tests are not licensed, even, for asymptomatic people and that we have a better overall plan to address symptomatic people in long-term care.”
Dix confirmed for B.C. Liberal health critic Renee Merrifield that B.C. has received 131 rapid test machines and 27,000 test kits from the federal government. Even if they were licensed for use on people not showing symptoms, there are not enough of them to do the type of daily screening proposed, he said. A similar limitation exists for antibody tests, which use a deep swab similar to those used for nucleic acid amplification (NAT) tests for the virus.
“We’ve received approximately a little under 500,000 of the Panbio antigen tests. All of them, of course, require a nasopharyngeal swab,” Dix said. “All of them require a health care worker to do the swab. All of them are not licensed for use except in people who are symptomatic, and even in the case of people who are symptomatic, they are not as able to pick up the virus as the regular NAT tests that we do on an ongoing basis in B.C.”