Saskatchewan’s rapid test engine blushes

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Saskatchewan has gone from lagging behind to leading in rapid COVID-19 testing as Canada faces a new variant.

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Saskatchewan has gone from lagging behind to leading in rapid COVID-19 testing as Canada grapples with a new variant of the virus.

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The province is expected to receive 10.6 million tests in the last three months of 2021 – nearly nine per capita – which will allow it to significantly expand access as other provinces scramble for swabs.

“I think Saskatchewan might be a bit of an outlier,” said University of Saskatchewan epidemiology professor Dr. Nazeem Muhajarine.

Dr Nazeem Muhajarine is Professor of Community Health and Epidemiology at the University of Saskatchewan.
Dr Nazeem Muhajarine is Professor of Community Health and Epidemiology at the University of Saskatchewan. Photo by Matt Smith /Saskatoon StarPhoenix

Hundreds of libraries, co-ops, hotels and chambers of commerce in Saskatchewan have become distribution centers for rapid tests. By all accounts, the system is a well-oiled machine. Greater Saskatoon Chamber of Commerce CEO Jason Aebig requested additional kits last week after Premier Scott Moe warned the new, extra-infectious Omicron variant of COVID-19 was the most important challenge in the province to date.

“The next day, I had two pallets of test kits. I had 3,000 test kits delivered to our offices, ”Aebig said. “It was not the before, where you might have to wait a week to 10 days for this inventory to start reaching you.

Jason Aebig, CEO of the Greater Saskatoon Chamber of Commerce.
Jason Aebig, CEO of the Greater Saskatoon Chamber of Commerce. Photo by Michelle Berg /Saskatoon StarPhoenix

Maritime provinces like Nova Scotia were the first to use them to detect and quell epidemics, but Saskatchewan may be unprecedented in the speed with which it has adopted them.

In October, the Saskatchewan government ordered 10.6 million rapid tests from the Federal Reserve until the end of the year. It was shortly after the government launched the idea of ​​importing and approving its own kits, apparently due to discontent over the federal rollout.

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This was a stark contrast from the start of the year, when Saskatchewan came under fire for using only a tiny fraction of its swabs. The government has expanded testing in healthcare facilities and high-risk environments like shelters, but few have done so in businesses or the general public. In October, schools participating in a pilot test program sold out so quickly that they ran lotteries to decide which parents would get them.

“Obviously, the province has its process in place. It works more easily, ”Aebig said.

The huge offer gave Saskatchewan a logistical advantage when Omicron arrived, even amid reports of shortages or distribution problems in provinces like Ontario and Quebec.

Regina Public Library locations distributed more than 20,000 tests last week, Central Library Executive Director Amber Christensen said. The Saskatoon Public Library has distributed more than 77,000 since the end of November, and demand has grown “exponentially,” said manager of community partnerships Amanda LePage.

The Frances Morrison branch of the Saskatoon Public Library was one of many distribution centers for COVID-19 rapid tests.
The Frances Morrison branch of the Saskatoon Public Library was one of many distribution centers for COVID-19 rapid tests. Photo by Matt Smith /Saskatoon StarPhoenix

“That’s what libraries do all the time, is connect people to community resources. Sometimes it’s information, but in this case it’s a COVID-10 (test) kit, “Christensen said.

The province has also partnered with Federated Co-operatives Ltd., which distributes kits to more than 180 locations. Communications director Brad DeLorey said 648,000 kits arrived Dec. 20 in communities as large as Saskatoon or as small as Hazlet.

“When you look in a small town in Saskatchewan, you’re going to find an RCMP depot and you’re going to find a co-op,” DeLorey said.

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Saskatchewan Public Safety Agency spokesperson Christopher Clemett wrote in an email that approximately 300,000 tests remained in warehouses for distribution as of Dec. 17. He noted that 14% of the tests received were sent to Indigenous Services Canada and the Northern Inter-Tribal Health Authority to meet First Nations demand.

“Saskatchewan has requested four million tests per month since November. We will continue to distribute as long as the supply is secured through the federal allocation, ”said Clemett.

Medical experts say rapid tests should become more routine as the Omicron variant arrives, due to its transmissibility.

Vancouver Infectious Diseases Center medical director Dr Brian Conway said such tests are not a substitute for vaccination or monitoring public health measures, but can be a useful wake-up call. British Columbia has yet to make the tests widely available. Conway said Saskatchewan’s approach is better.

“The use of the test is that if you are positive it allows us to identify you faster, more effectively.”

A rapid COVID-19 test.
A rapid COVID-19 test. Photo by Frank Gunn / The Canadian Press

Muhajarine said the rapid tests also do not replace the COVID-19 tests offered by the Saskatchewan Health Authority. The province says rapid tests should only be used by asymptomatic people and positive results should be confirmed with an SHA test.

Ideally, Muhajarine said rapid testing should be done as an extra layer of protection – ideally right before a gathering inside or welcoming a visitor over the holidays.

“We need to communicate with people: here’s how to use rapid antigen testing efficiently and intelligently,” he said.

News seems to fly to us faster all the time. From COVID-19 updates to politics and crime and everything in between, it can be hard to keep pace. With that in mind, the Saskatoon StarPhoenix has created an Afternoon Headlines newsletter that can be delivered to your inbox daily to help you stay on top of the most important news of the day. Click here to subscribe.

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