As government at all levels consider how to help the tourism sector survive the impacts of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, one of the tools being looked at is the adoption of rapid COVID-19 testing.
“The Premier’s Tourism Task Force final report recommended, among a number of things, that government prioritize innovative approaches to lifting travel restrictions,” explained Whistler Mayor Jack Crompton.
“One of the innovative approaches could be rapid tests in the tourism sector, and that is certainly something I’ve been discussing with other mayors, and [I’m] interested in understanding whether it would work in our setting.”
Whistler has recently been the site of a rapid COVID-19 test trial run through the Divisions of Family Practice. No details of the trial were available at press time. (Check back with piquenewsmagazine.com for more on the trial run as information becomes available.)
Most recently, Canada has been testing more than 80,000 people a day, with nearly 12,000 of those in B.C., primarily using the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test, which although close to 100-per-cent accurate, can take a full day or more to process.
The rapid antigen test, on the other hand, isn’t as precise, with a higher false-negative* rate than molecular tests, but it requires less know-how to administer, typically through a nasal or throat swab, and can produce results in as little as 15 minutes.
*An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated rapid antigen tests have a higher false-positive rate than molecular tests. In fact, they have been found to have a higher false-negative rate, with false-positive rates close to zero for both rapid and molecular COVID tests.
Although not favoured as a single test for active infection, because the rapid antigen test is quicker, cheaper, and easier to administer, some experts recommend it as a broad approach, with the idea being that it would cut back on contact-tracing time and get positive-case patients into quarantine sooner.
A recent government-funded study out of Oxford University conceded that rapid testing is less accurate than its PCR counterpart, but “could be a good solution to ensuring those who are highly infectious are able to know they need to isolate more quickly and could allow an easing of lockdown restrictions.”
Sandy White is the co-founder of Rapid Test & Trace Canada, and one of the country’s leading voices calling for widespread adoption of rapid testing. A former policy advisor for the Conservative Party and hotelier by trade, White has met with officials in tourism hotspots, including Whistler.
A coalition of concerned businesses, academics, epidemiologists and public heath experts that includes representatives from Harvard, the University of Toronto and the University of B.C., Rapid Test & Trace Canada has lobbied for a ramping up of rapid testing to 5 million a day by April. And while the federal government has purchased and distributed 38 million rapid antigen tests to the provinces, the uptake has varied.
“We need to take a quick consideration and a step back to remember what we’re trying to achieve: In short, a testing, screening and tracing approach that is put in place specifically to identify cases, isolate the people who are infectious, and track their contacts to find anywhere where this disease might have spread and lock it down through quarantining,” White said. “Canada has done an absolutely abysmal job at that so far.”
At the moment, provincial officials’ appetite for rapid testing appears to be lukewarm, at best. Although trials have been carried out in long-term care homes in the Lower Mainland, and a recent study out of Simon Fraser University estimated that as many as half the roughly 600 deaths last year in B.C.’s long-term care and assisted living facilities could have been prevented had rapid testing been made available, Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry and Health Minister Adrian Dix have pointed to concerns about the test’s accuracy, as well as its potential strain on an already overloaded healthcare system, as reasons for not adopting it more broadly.
“What we’re really failing to understand, and people who are paying attention are seeing with open eyes, is that the Canadian healthcare system, very simply, is not set up for this,” White said.
Without major backing from public health, Canada’s private sector has stepped up to fill the void. Enlisting the help of University of Toronto business professors, 12 major Canadian companies, including Air Canada, Loblaw, Suncor, Rogers and Shoppers Drug Mart, have come together to develop a quick screening system, using the rapid tests, for its workers, with the goal of accelerating the economy’s recovery.
Nova Scotia has taken a novel approach of its own, enlisting and training volunteers from the public to administer rapid tests at pop-up COVID-19 centres throughout the province, which has so far seen just over 1,500 positive cases since the pandemic began, less than 0.2 per cent of Canada’s total caseload.
Several countries turned to rapid testing as they struggled to contain the second wave of the virus, but opinion remains divided in the scientific community over its use.
In the U.K., the government is administering close to 600,000 PCR and rapid tests a day, almost double the testing rate from November, amidst pushback from some in the medical field, who say the rapid tests’ inaccuracy compared to the “gold standard” PCR test means it isn’t worth adopting on a wide scale.
The British government, meanwhile, has touted the rapid tests’ reliability, noting that they allow for regular testing of people who may have the virus but are asymptomatic.
For his part, White acknowledged that rapid testing is just one tool in the government’s pandemic toolkit, but an essential one nonetheless.
“It’s not a silver bullet, there’s no doubt about that. Masks still need to be kept in place, distancing still needs to be there, the vaccine is coming, which is wonderful,” he said. “No one thing is a panacea or a miracle cure, but rapid testing is the one thing where we’ve just been like, ‘No, we don’t feel like doing that.’”
Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH) did not respond to a request for comment by deadline.
Whistler’s current COVID landscape
It took Whistler less than a month to surpass its 2020 COVID caseload, with 288 lab-confirmed cases up until Jan. 26, compared to 271 cases for all of last year, according to the most recent available data.
In an information bulletin that went out last Thursday, Jan. 28, VCH said the majority of recent cases “involve young people in their 20s and 30s who live, work and socialize together.” None of the recent cases have resulted in hospitalization or death.
Looking at the wider Howe Sound health region, which comprises Whistler, Pemberton, Squamish, Lions Bay and parts of the southern Stl’atl’mx Nation, the most recent data, published after this story originally went to press, shows there were 287 new cases between Jan. 24 and 30, up from 224 the week prior and 63 the week before that.
In the two weeks leading up to the end of January, the number of COVID cases per capita in the health region would put it between two to 13 times higher than anywhere else in southwest B.C., with nearly one per cent of the region’s population infected in that time.
The Howe Sound health region had a total of 503 cases last year.
The pandemic has hit resort businesses hard as well. On Monday, Feb. 1, the Amsterdam Café Pub became the seventh resort restaurant or bar added to VCH’s list of possible public exposures in the span of a week, meaning health officials have been unable to contact everyone who may have been exposed. The possible exposure dates are noted as Jan. 11 to 17, 19, 21, and from the 23 to 25.
Dubh Linn Gate Irish Pub, Black’s Pub and Buffalo Bills Bar & Grill were added to the potential exposure list on Wednesday, Jan. 27, joining Hy’s Whistler, El Furniture Warehouse and The Longhorn Saloon added earlier that week.
The potential exposure dates are noted as between Jan. 1 and 27 for the Dubh Linn Gate; from Jan. 5 to 27 at Black’s; from Jan. 4 to 27 for Bills; from Jan. 16 to 25 at the Longhorn; on Jan. 12, and from Jan. 14 to 21 at El Furni’s; and on Jan. 13, and 15 and 16 at Hy’s.
The Fairmont Chateau Whistler also confirmed, in a statement to CBC, that 12 of its employees have tested positive, while Whistler Blackcomb said last month that several staff were in isolation after possible exposure.
Four Whistler and Pemberton schools have had COVID-19 exposures in the last several weeks.
The latest added to the list is Whistler Secondary School. On its website, VCH lists the potential exposure dates as Jan. 11 to 14 and Jan. 18 and 19.
On Monday, Jan. 31, the Sea to Sky School District (No. 48) issued two COVID-19 exposures notices at Signal Hill Elementary School in Pemberton and Spring Creek Community School in Whistler.
“We are supporting Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH) to undertake contact tracing to determine if any other members of our school community were in contact with the person who tested positive for COVID-19, and if any additional steps are required,” both letters say.
Neither of those exposures, however, are currently listed on VCH’s exposure list.
Protocols in both cases are for VCH to perform contact tracing, determine if anyone in the school was in contact with the person who tested positive while they were infectious, and determine if anyone in the school is a close contact who needs to self-isolate.
The letter asks that if you’re contacted by VCH you should follow its advice. However, if you aren’t contacted, the health authority has determined your child is not at risk.
Last week, L’Ecole Vallée De Pemberton temporarily closed after exposures on Jan. 25 and 26.
In a letter, VCH said, “public health is requiring all staff and students from all grades who attended school on [Jan.] 25, 26, 2021 to self-isolate at home for 14 days from the date of exposure.”
The French language school for kids from Kindergarten to Grade 8 is located on the same property as Signal Hill Elementary School, but in a separate building. Students do access Signal Hill’s gym and library, but they didn’t on the days of the exposures, said a representative from the Sea to Sky School District.
‘I think we’re exhausted’
As case numbers have risen, so too has the stress levels of the Whistler community, said Crompton.
“I think we’re exhausted,” he said. “This has been going on for almost a year and we are continually asked to do more. That’s an enormous ask when you’ve been doing more for a full year.”
Crompton has taken to social media in recent days to address some residents’ frustrations over what they see as a lack of action on curbing visitation from outside the region. Acknowledging the limits on what he can do as a municipal mayor, Crompton said he has been vocal in urging visitors not to come here, and remains in constant communication with the province and health officials in addressing COVID.
“None of this has been perfect by any means,” he said. “We’re in the middle of a pandemic and we need the leadership and guidance of our public health authority. I think we’d do well to trust them.”
Whistler is a prime example of the balancing act B.C. has tried to strike between preserving physical and economic health. Henry has previously urged Lower Mainland skiers to stick to their local mountains, such as Cypress and Seymour, but then on Friday, Jan. 29, seemed to indicate what constitutes “local” leaves some room for interpretation.
“If you’re somebody who works, or has strong connections and lives partly in Whistler, then yes, that is your local ski hill,” she said, after noting that day trips are less risky than multi-day stays.
“It’s not the skiing itself that seems to be the risk. It’s the things that we’re doing before and after—if we are staying over, having people over.”
In one of his regular COVID video updates this week, Crompton touched on Henry’s remarks, saying he knows “many people were disappointed that she wasn’t more focused on limiting visitation from the Lower Mainland. From the beginning her focus has been on understanding where spread is happening and where it isn’t and making policy accordingly. The goods news is if we are careful skiing is safe and will stay open. The old news is we still need to ‘stay home, stay local and reduce our contacts.’ Come to the hill, ski and go home applies to all of us.”
Henry also fielded a question last week about Whistler hotels advertising travel incentives online. In response, the provincial health officer said any ads targeting out-of-province travellers were “not something I would support at this point.” (It’s unclear whether the ads appeared outside of B.C.)
For its part, Tourism Whistler suspended all marketing for stays in January, February and March, and its website features a notice advising of B.C’s current travel advisory, noting “all non-essential travel into, out of and within British Columbia should be postponed” until it is lifted. The current travel advisory is in place until Feb. 5.
Ahead of Family Day on Feb. 15, Henry has urged British Columbians to stay close to home for the holiday, adding that the province will step up enforcement around social gatherings in vacation homes given recent clusters in Whistler and Fernie.
“We have orders in place from the summer when we saw similar things happening around vacation properties in the Interior. Those orders say you cannot have gatherings in rental properties,” she said.
In its most recent press briefing, the Whistler RCMP noted there were three violations under the COVID-19 Related Measures Act between Jan. 18 and 25.
Municipal staff is now working with other agencies to ensure Whistler is prepared to host vaccination clinics when the vaccine is available, Crompton said.
- with files from Alyssa Noel
This story has been updated since publication.