The territory is changing the availability of COVID-19 lab testing in order to avoid capacity issues as Omicron surges in the territory.
Based on the recommendations of the acting chief medical officer and the high transmission rate of the Omicron variant, anyone with symptoms should now assume they are COVID-19-positive and begin isolation.
Vaccinated adults with fully functioning immune systems are no longer eligible for polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests at the Whitehorse testing centre, the government announced on Jan. 5. The decision follows a number of other jurisdictions.
“Tests are most important for people who are at risk of severe disease or who work with vulnerable Yukoners. For most Yukoners, COVID-19 can be managed safely at home without testing,” said Acting Chief Medical Officer Dr. Catherine Elliott in a statement.
Instead, PCR tests are now being prioritized for people who are more at risk of severe outcomes from the virus.
Those include the unvaccinated or partially unvaccinated, those who are pregnant, live in communities outside of Whitehorse, front line workers, people and staff in congregate living, people who are over 50 and those with risk factors of severe disease.
Elliott made the announcement on Jan. 5, but released more information on the list of people eligible for PCR tests on Jan. 6.
“A test is not required to do the right thing and stay home and stay away from others when you are feeling sick,” said Health Minister Tracy-Anne McPhee in a statement.
Private clinic anticipating changes
PCR testing is still available outside of the government testing centre, but the cost won’t be covered.
Right now, Hummingbird Mobile Health is the only place to access asymptomatic testing in the territory. The private clinic offers a range of testing options from a molecular PCR test for $300, to a molecular NAAT/NEAR test for $210, to a non-molecular antigen test for $78.
Clinic owner Mieke Leonard said to date, the clinic has offered the tests only to people without COVID-19 symptoms. Instead, they’ve encouraged anyone showing symptoms to use the government test centre to make sure cases are properly counted.
“We wanted to make sure that people who were symptomatic were redirected to the local public health authority because we want to make sure that that population health surveillance piece is being captured well,” she said. “We want people to access the system appropriately.”
She said the clinic — which has a staff of 12 nurses in addition to admin support — is not at capacity for testing. She said she has offered to work with the government to expand the availability of PCR tests and case surveillance but so far, they have not responded to her offer.
Leonard’s lab work isn’t able to confirm different strains of the variant, but their PCR test results are accepted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.
The clinic has focused on people who need tests for work or asymptomatic travel, but she said she’s concerned some people who want a diagnosis for their records may be unable to afford it if it’s not covered by the government.
PCR-confirmation tests have also been used to prove a person has recovered from COVID-19 recently and is fit to travel internationally.
“Without a confirmation PCR, where are these people going to be when they need to access long-COVID clinics, [workers compensation claims] or long-term COVID services?” said Leonard. “That evidence is not going to be there to help serve those people when they need it the most.”
More antigen at-home rapid tests coming soon
On Jan. 5, the federal government announced it would be shipping 140 million additional antigen tests to the provinces and territories. The Yukon is expecting to receive 100,000 tests, and Elliott announced that a new strategy for distributing them would be forthcoming.
While molecular PCR tests are considered the “gold standard” and most reliable and accurate tests, they also take more time and must be performed by health professionals.
Rapid tests, which can be performed at home and give results in 15 minutes, are becoming a popular precautionary tool to prevent the spread of positive cases.
It is important to note that while they are useful in some circumstances, the at-home antigen tests are less reliable than other methods.
Leonard said despite her faith in the tests, a recent personal experience has her spreading the word about using them with caution.
“It’s kind of shaken my confidence a little bit in non-molecular testing, to be perfectly honest with you,” she said.
During the holidays, Leonard said she travelled to Alberta to spend time with family. She was testing regularly — but found out first-hand that tests don’t always pick up on the virus.
She’s now isolating after contracting a case of COVID-19 that wasn’t caught by the tests until days after the onset of symptoms. Leonard said the rapid tests are still a useful tool, but they can’t be an excuse to ignore symptoms or be reckless.
“A molecular test is always going to be superior to a non-molecular test. I’ve seen this, having done this kind of work for well over a year now,” she said. “They are great tests. But I think it can give people this false sense of security — thinking that they might be well, but they actually aren’t.”
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