A baggage carousel in Yellowknife Airport on January 5, 2018.
Passengers landing in Yellowknife can’t find them. Parents of schoolchildren can’t find them. Yet both groups are being asked to use them.
The absence of rapid Covid-19 tests in the Northwest Territories threatens to undermine the territory’s attempt in the past two weeks to move more testing to people’s homes instead of test centres and laboratories.
With NWT test centre capacity stretched beyond its limit over the holiday travel period, the territory has multiple times urged people to take rapid tests on arrival at airports and use them at home, while carefully monitoring themselves and avoiding gatherings for three days after returning from travel.
But travellers told Cabin Radio there were no rapid tests to be found when they landed in Yellowknife over the past few days. (Tests have been advertised as being available at Yellowknife and Inuvik airports, but not road entrances to the territory.)
“I was told they ran out last week,” one traveller, flying home to the Sahtu via Yellowknife, said on Monday. “A bunch of us were depending on them.”
A woman described her daughter and partner arriving from Nova Scotia on Sunday to find no tests available.
“We are being led to believe that returning air travellers are being given Covid test kits as an additional layer of protection for our population, but this is simply not happening,” the woman wrote.
“I believe that this is a major gap in preventing the spread of Omicron to our vulnerable citizens.”
At a news conference on Tuesday, NWT Premier Caroline Cochrane said “distribution issues” had led to an absence of rapid tests at Yellowknife’s airport from December 30 to January 3. (Two travellers who arrived in the NWT via Inuvik said that airport had maintained a supply.)
Pressed to explain what happened, officials said the airport had simply run out. Cochrane told reporters the problem had been corrected.
Dr Kami Kandola, the territory’s chief public health officer, said the territory had procured fresh supplies of rapid tests only because it was “connected to an individual on Monday” that could provide more stock. The identity of that individual was not specified.
“We are thankfully ordering more supplies this week and we anticipate that we should have robust supplies for the next two weeks, depending on airport travel,” Dr Kandola said.
Both Cochrane and territorial medical director Dr AnneMarie Pegg said the shortage of tests was nationwide.
“The Prime Minister has stated that getting the tests out to all jurisdictions is his priority right now,” Cochrane said.
School test requirement
That may not help people who are being told they must take rapid tests this week but have none to use.
That’s a particularly pressing issue for parents, who were told by Kandola on Tuesday that schoolchildren should take a rapid test before they return to class as schools reopen next week.
“I am asking all parents to do a rapid antigen test with their children on January 9, the day before schools reopen,” the chief public health officer said.
“Testing will help catch asymptomatic or mild Covid-19 infection before they enter the classroom and cause an outbreak and lengthier school disruptions.”
Kandola said two rapid tests per child – at least 5,000 tests overall – had been sent home with students on the last day of class before the holidays at “participating schools,” without specifying which schools those were.
Immediately, parents began protesting online that they could not find any such tests. One, describing a rummage through school bags, said no rapid test was to be found.
How parents should acquire rapid tests if none came home with their child was not immediately clear, and Tuesday’s news conference ended before Kandola could be asked. The Covid-19 Secretariat has been approached for comment.
Community test access
Rapid tests are so far not widely available in NWT communities. They cannot, for example, be readily acquired at clinics or in stores.
Dr Pegg said that will change this week, though the number of incoming tests and residents’ means of accessing them were not specified in detail.
“We’re looking at scaling up our distribution of rapid tests,” said Pegg.
“We’ve started in Yellowknife and this is also being rolled out in the Beaufort Delta, Łútsël K’é, and Dettah this week, with other communities to follow.”
If you arrived at Yellowknife Airport between December 30 and January 3 and could not access a rapid test, Cochrane said you should return to the airport with your boarding pass and ID from 1pm-5pm on Tuesday or 8:30am-5pm on Wednesday to receive a test kit.
If you have already left Yellowknife for another community, Kandola said you should monitor yourself for symptoms in the 72 hours after arrival and contact your local health centre if you feel a test is needed.
Anyone using a rapid test at home is told to isolate if they test positive and call Protect NWT to report the test result. Their household is also required to isolate.
“Residents will also be asked to follow up with their known close contacts and advise them that they were exposed to Covid-19 infection,” Kandola said.
“We have limited capacity during this time and are relying on you to test when appropriate, report if you’re positive, and inform if there’s a concern, so others can do their own risk assessments.”