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CMOH: Federal rapid test supply not used for general public

Elliott said there are positives and negatives to using at-home antigen test kits.
A member of the medical staff at the National Public Health Organisation adjusts COVID-19 rapid tests on Nov. 15. (Thanassis Stavrakis/Associated Press file)

Acting Chief Medical Officer Catherine Elliott said that the territory is using rapid tests supplied by the federal government, but they are not providing them to the general public at this time.

The federal government has provided the Yukon government with more than 35,000 kits, but numbers on how they have been used have not been made public. The federal government said it provided the territory with 18,400 of the “Abbott Panbio” tests for at-home use, as well as 18,048 “Abbott ID Now” tests that require molecular testing machines.

During the COVID-19 press conference on Dec. 15, Elliott said the tests are being used “when appropriate.”

The two types of rapid tests are the “antigen rapid tests” which can be self-administered and used at home but are less reliable, and molecular rapid tests, which must be used with a dedicated machine but are more reliable.

Both rapid tests are still not as reliable or fulsome as the “gold standard” lab tests.

“We’ve used these [antigen] tests here in the Yukon when we can,” she said. “So for example, we’ve used them when we need to screen a large population very quickly when we need to assess the situation where we don’t have access to the molecular testing. This is how we’ve been using these rapid antigen tests.”

Elliott confirmed that the tests the federal government has provided have been used in hospitals and health centres in the territory, in addition to shared living settings like the drug and alcohol treatment centre and the Whitehorse emergency shelter.

She also said that rapid tests have been provided to mining companies in order to test workers in group-living settings. She noted the companies have their own medical teams with lab capacity.

“Our mines have fantastic medical oversight and laboratory capacity to run these tests,” she said.

So far, the tests have not been provided to the general public. Elliott said the tests are less reliable than the gold standard and they also reduce communication with public health. The standard lab tests allow the territory to track Omicron cases, for example, and they also don’t allow public health professionals to give people science-based advice on how to isolate in order to reduce infection.

“I think that’s also part of what we’re seeing across the country is that sometimes people test positive. They make their decisions. They’re not always the decisions we would advise,” she said. “Those people trying to do the best thing don’t realize they’re infectious and can go back to their activities and expose people.”

“Using kits at home is definitely the way of the future and we will get there. It has both benefits and risks,” said Elliott.

“So we are looking at the role of rapid testing and the best place for it in our system here in Yukon. We are using it currently and we’re looking at the best ways to continue to use it over the coming weeks and months. But it is really important to know it’s not completely straightforward,” she said.

She encouraged people using antigen rapid tests to have follow-up lab tests at the COVID-19 testing centre.

The News contacted the Department of Health and Social Services requesting information on the use of rapid tests a week earlier on Dec. 8, but received no response. A follow-up was made on Dec. 13 but the government did not provide any information until the Wednesday press conference.

Reached prior to Wednesday’s press conference, both the NDP and Yukon Party criticized the government’s strategy.

“The Liberals are once again failing to communicate with Yukoners about what they are doing and why they are doing it,” said the party’s spokesperson Tim Kucharuk, in an email.

“If they have used the rapid tests then why haven’t they communicated this to the federal government or to Yukoners? And if they haven’t used the rapid tests then why are they not following the advice and guidance of public health experts at Health Canada and the Public Health Agency of Canada?” he added.

NDP leader Kate White said the government needs to be more clear about how rapid tests are being used. She referred to the fall legislature sitting, when the government said teachers could access rapid testing – which was news to the teachers’ union.

“I guess the challenge becomes that we see rapid tests being used as part of an arsenal of tools right across the country and across the planet. So the question becomes, why is the Yukon so different? I think one of those ongoing questions is why, if the science works in other places, why doesn’t it work here?” she said.

“There’s more questions right now than answers for sure,” she said.

The Yukon, Nunavut and Manitoba are the only three jurisdictions that have not provided reporting on use of rapid tests. The Northwest Territories, in comparison, has received 183,480 tests and used around 11 per cent so far.

Contact Haley Ritchie at