Modelling from SFU researchers suggests screening with rapid testing could reduce COVID-19 transmission in long-term care

January 29, 2021 | News, COVID-19

BURNABY – SafeCare BC has long advocated for the use of COVID rapid tests as a screening tool in long-term care. Researchers at Simon Fraser University performed a modelling exercise using a test like the Panbio COVID-19 Ag Rapid Test, which suggested that screening with rapid tests in long-term care would have two significant benefits: preventing initial introductions of COVID-19 into a setting, and when these exposures do happen, detecting it faster, to allow targeted interventions sooner.

Results from this rapid antigen test can be ready in 15-20 minutes and the test has a 90% accuracy on positive cases. This is important because many people with COVID-19 are asymptomatic (never develop symptoms) or are presymptomatic (haven’t developed symptoms yet), which our current screening protocols won’t pick up.

Given current delays in the production and distribution of COVID vaccines for healthcare workers and our seniors population, there is still a need for rapid testing of staff, visitors, and residents in long-term care. The SFU team determined that if rapid testing was used for every visitor, there could be a 90% reduction in the number of exposures from visitors. And if screening was done every three days for staff, there would be a 45-55% reduction in the number of outbreaks introduced inadvertently by staff.

“The tragic outcomes of COVID-19 outbreaks at long-term care homes will continue until we achieve community immunity through vaccination, which we know might take another eight months or more. In addition, the potential for new high-transmission variants to enter long-term care homes in BC is a huge concern, which gives even stronger support for using screening to prevent outbreaks,” says Jen Lyle. “We owe it to those working at and living in care homes to screen workers and visitors with rapid tests.”

Other provinces and countries have already been using rapid testing in long-term care to help with screening, allowing them to intervene earlier and manage the spread of the disease. This also contributes to the psychological well-being of staff, who are fearful of bringing the disease into their care home, or home to their own families.

“We should be using all the tools in the toolkit, and rapid screening could prevent a lot of outbreaks,” says Dr. Caroline Colijn, a Canada 150 Research Chair in Mathematics for Infection, Evolution and Public Health and professor at SFU, and who co-produced this modelling analysis. “Rapid tests may not be as accurate as PCR tests, but the comparison here isn’t to PCR tests, it’s to no regular screening. Rapid tests are accurate enough for screening large numbers of people.” 

Early in the pandemic, BC’s health officials took decisive action to manage the spread of COVID-19 and were seen as leaders. 

“We need that same kind of action to implement rapid testing in long-term care, which we know will help prevent the spread of the virus and save lives,” says Lyle. “Rapid testing is already supported by the Office of the Seniors Advocate and the BC Care Providers Association.”

View the full modelling report