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B.C. expected to dramatically expand rapid COVID testing in face of Omicron

Province has requested 11 million tests from federal government's expected cache of 84 million by mid-January
B.C. is planning to expand rapid COVID testing to combat the spread of the Omicron variant.

B.C. is expected to dramatically expand the use of rapid antigen COVID-19 testing in the coming months as the Omicron variant spreads while supplies of tests grow, provincial officials said.

Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry confirmed at today’s announcement of new restrictions to curb Omicron’s spread that B.C. has requested 11 million tests - or 13.5% - from the federal government’s total expected supply cache of 84 million by mid/late January 2022. 

In addition, the province is already expecting 200,000 Panbio Rapid POC antigen tests from Ottawa by Dec. 31. Also, B.C. has itself purchased 500,000 BTNX nasal-swab tests with an “expected delivery of late December.”

The supply of rapid antigen COVID tests will mean that the province will not only continue to conduct about 35,000 rapid tests per week under the current regime, but also expand rapid testing to a number of areas before mid-January - even before the larger shipment of 11 million tests arrive from Ottawa. Those first rounds of testing expansions include 700,000 tests that will be made available to people with symptoms at sample collection sites.

Also, an additional 100,000 tests each will be given to long-term care facilities (for staff and visitors use) and to acute health care sites for workers showing symptoms. Rural, remote, indigenous and vulnerable communities (1.2 million tests), businesses under B.C.’s existing Rapid COVID-19 Point of Care Screening program (250,000) and regional health authorities handling case/contact management (250,000) will also receive a supply of rapid tests, officials confirmed.

Henry, however, noted to B.C. residents that the availability of rapid tests is meant to act as a quicker warning for people testing positive to halt all harmful social interactions - not for people to use the result to bypass the restrictions put in place to combat Omicron.

“I want to really emphasize:  Rapid antigen testing, the point-of-care testing that we have, these are red lights, not green lights,” she said. “Having a negative test does not mean you don’t have to pay attention to the different measures we have in place, the layers of protection… It doesn’t mean you can have a larger gathering. It doesn’t mean you don’t have to wear your mask. “

Omicron has spread rapidly in various jurisdictions across the globe in the last few weeks, and several Canadian provinces like Ontario and Quebec have begun reverting to strict social distancing restrictions in a bid to slow down the variant’s rapid spread. B.C. itself announced a number of measures on Tuesday, and the antigen rapid testing is expected to play a key role for health officials trying to get a handle on the virus.

Up to Dec. 15, the province has distributed 1.27 million tests to focus on the key areas highlighted above. Those distributed rapid tests come from a supply of 3.2 million that B.C. has received up to this point.

After the expected arrival of the large cache of tests from the federal government mid-January, B.C. will launch a second round of testing expansions. This expansion will see more tests being given to schools (500,000 tests to K-12 students and staff to “support return to school and continuity of in-person learning,” and 500,000 to post-secondary institutions) and local outbreak cluster management/protection for the extremely vulnerable 70+ population (7 million tests).

“One of the key considerations that I have and we have is to continue to protect the seniors and elders in long-term care,”Henry said. “Part of our rationale for our vaccine mandate… is how important that is to build these walls to make sure people coming in are not infected, and we will be adding this additional testing into long-term care in the coming weeks.”

Test supplies to long-term care and at-risk communities will also be expanded through a re-enforcement of 3 million tests from the federal supply, officials said.

The supply of rapid antigen tests beyond January has not been confirmed, B.C. officials added. Health authorities will take the next month to assess and monitor the administering of rapid tests in the province, in order to determine the future deployment and distribution of such tests beyond February.

“We are in a very uncertain time,” Henry said. “We will be learning more about what Omicron means for us, the context that it’s in. We are deploying our rapid tests to supplement the testing so that we understand how it is moving through our community, so we can ensure we have the health care resources to keep our health care system functioning.”

However, Henry also pushed back on questions of whether the province could have deployed rapid-tests more quickly - and the idea of whether such tests should be made available to the general public.

Such a move is not realistic, she said, because those who are healthy and without symptoms would quickly consume the supply of tests available - leaving many people in need without access.

“We do not have enough tests,” Henry said. “We’ve never had enough tests in Canada to do that. When we look at the model in the U.K. where they provide rapid tests for free… that has not stopped the surge in cases that they are seeing.

“The supply that we have in Canada and in B.C., we need it to manage the people with symptoms.”