COVID-19 testing not an effective alternative to mandatory vaccines, experts say

Experts say that regular testing for COVID-19 is not an effective alternative to mandatory vaccinations to prevent the spread of the virus.

Testing as an alternative to mandatory COVID-19 vaccines has appeared in policies across the country for a number of settings.

Ontario has allowed COVID-19 testing as an alternative to mandatory vaccines at high-risk environments, such as hospitals and schools, while Carleton University in Ottawa, Ont., and Simon Fraser University in Vancouver have also allowed testing rather than vaccination.

Read more: Carleton University tightens COVID-19 vaccine mandate, limits testing workarounds

Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole has proposed that unvaccinated civil servants and domestic travellers can show a negative COVID-19 test or do rapid testing on the spot as opposed to being vaccinated if he were elected prime minister.

However, medical experts are not in favour of the option.

“[Testing] is not really that effective,” said Dr. Alon Vaisman, an infection control physician at Toronto’s University Health Network.

“It depends on what the testing format you use, first of all, and second of all, how frequently you do it.”

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Vaisman said there are two primary types of COVID-19 testing: rapid testing and polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing. Rapid testing only has about a 50 per cent chance of detecting COVID-19, according to Vaisman, while PCR’s sensitivity can reach up to 80 per cent.

Ontario’s rules call for rapid testing — the less effective method — to be used, rather than PCR.

Dr. Gerald Evans, an immunology professor at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., is bewildered by that requirement.

“Why would we use a crappier test in this period while we’re waiting to get everybody fully vaccinated?” he asked.

“But, you know, that’s the kind of weirdness that we’re seeing in decision-makers when it comes to this.”

Read more: Major B.C. universities to require COVID-19 vaccine disclosure, implement rapid testing for unvaccinated

Both Evans and Vaisman speculate that an excess of rapid testing kits the province has purchased may be behind the decision.

Ontario also currently requires a COVID-19 test once a week for hospital workers, which Evans said is not often enough to always catch the virus, preferring three times a week instead.

“That’s a real loophole,” he said.

Ontario chief medical health officer Dr. Kieran Moore has said the amount of testing may go up to two or three times a week for hospital workers, and it is set at twice a week for teachers.

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Nevertheless, both Evans and Vaisman still see the testing option as a stepping stone ahead of mandatory vaccinations, and indeed, most hospitals in Kingston and Toronto have eliminated the option altogether, according to Evans.

“Hospitals have a real important mandate to keep our patients safe,” he said.

“If we have people getting sick from COVID because they’re not vaccinating, that’s going to impact staffing, which impacts our ability to provide health care to people who don’t have COVID.”

Critics have come down on Ontario’s testing policy, with NDP Leader Andrea Horwath calling it a “risky half-measure.”

Read more: TD Place in Ottawa removes testing workaround from COVID-19 vaccine policy

“A test just once per week is not the same as a mandatory vaccine,” she said.

Ontario Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca said Premier Doug Ford is “pandering to anti-vaxxers.”

Evans does recognize that testing can be an attractive way to appease those resistant to vaccinations and argues that’s why Ontario has provided the option, but it ultimately is a surveillance strategy, not a preventative strategy.

Another concern of testing is the cost of it.

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University of Toronto bioethicist Kerry Bowman wonders who will be paying for these tests — the recipients or the taxpayers. Moore has said it isn’t likely users would have to pay for their own tests, but wouldn’t rule it out.

A rapid test costs $40 at Shoppers Drug Mart.

“If [tests] are a significant cost to the broader society that’s coming up in health care budgets, it’s very problematic,” he said, noting that a growing number of people are becoming increasingly intolerant towards those resistant to vaccination.

“Offering [testing] as an alternative may be very hard to do politically,” he said.

© 2021 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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