Over the next three school days, nurses armed with swabs will descend on an empty classroom in Thorncliffe Park to offer coronavirus tests to every student at the Toronto high-rise communitys elementary school.
The blitz is a proactive surveillance effort to find cases in a neighbourhood where more coronavirus tests are coming back positive than in any other pocket of the city, a sign that too few Thorncliffe residents are getting tested.
The school is a great window to the whole community, said Janine McCready, an infectious diseases physician at Michael Garron Hospital, one of the organizations conducting the testing.
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Offering testing to all students during the school day is believed to be a first for Toronto, and it comes as provincial governments in Ontario and elsewhere struggle to persuade people to get tested for COVID-19, especially in some of the neighbourhoods hurt most by the pandemic.
Canadas Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam has warned that the country might not be testing enough to combat the second wave.
Despite surging infections in every province west of the Maritimes, the average number of coronavirus tests reported daily in Canada has actually fallen from a high of about 89,000 in the second week of October to about 65,000 a day at the end of last week. The number of new cases reported daily across the country has more than doubled during that time.
In Ontario, where the provinces laboratory network almost always processes fewer tests than its capacity of about 50,000 a day, one challenge has become figuring out how to overcome testing hesitancy in communities such as Thorncliffe Park, a haven for new immigrants northeast of the citys downtown.
In some cases, especially in some newcomer populations, theres a fear of testing and a lack of trust in government, said Councillor Joe Cressy, chair of Torontos Board of Health. We hear things like, If I test positive will you take my kids away? If I test positive, will I be sent to an institution? Testing hesitancy, in part from mistrust, is real.
Thorncliffe Park has seen an explosion of new infections this fall. Nearly 300 residents have tested positive for the coronavirus since Oct. 1, double the 153 infections identified in the first six months of the pandemic, according to a Globe and Mail analysis of Toronto Public Health data.
Still, those figures almost certainly understate the true burden of COVID-19 in Thorncliffe Park. Just over 16 per cent of residents tests came back positive in the week leading up to Nov. 14, according to ICES, a non-profit Ontario research organization formerly known as the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences.
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An ICES analysis of test positivity rates by the first half of a postal code found that Thorncliffes test-positivity rate was the highest in Toronto and fifth-highest in Ontario. The top four were in the city of Brampton.
To see the super-high percent positivity in some neighbourhoods was quite shocking, said Jeff Kwong, a senior scientist at ICES. Its not evenly distributed across Toronto or across Peel. It shows that there are these areas that are at much higher risk that deserve more attention.
Testing for COVID-19 at Thorncliffe Park Public School during the school day in a manner similar to school-wide lice or dental checks is an effort to bring that extra attention to a hard-hit neighbourhood.
Thorncliffe residents havent lacked for access to testing; the community has its own walk-in testing centre operated by East Toronto Health Partners, an Ontario Health Team that includes Michael Garron Hospital and a handful of community and doctors organizations.
Although the number of people swabbed at the site has increased gradually to an average of about 100 a day, it can still be a struggle to persuade people to come in, said Jen Quinlan, the CEO of Flemingdon Health Centre, one of the partners in operating the testing centre.
Some are confused about when to get tested, Ms. Quinlan said. Others fear that a positive test and the isolation period that follows it would jeopardize their often precarious, low-wage jobs.
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Dr. McCready said some Thorncliffe parents had asked for testing during the day at the elementary school, which is one of Canadas largest. A lot of them have actually said to me, Honestly, if you just tested [children] in the schools it would be better. It would be easier for me. I dont have to bring my four kids to an assessment centre and worry that someone is going to see me there and think I have COVID. ”
Dr. McCready said the testing blitz, which will see students tested using shallow nasal and mouth swabs, is not an outbreak investigation like some other, more limited efforts to test at or near Toronto schools.
Typically, Thorncliffe Park Public Schools enrolment is about 1,400. This year, about 650 students have chosen virtual school. It currently has two active cases and 15 that are considered resolved, according to Ryan Bird, a spokesman for the Toronto District School Board.
Theyve actually been doing very well with infection-control measures, Dr. McCready said.
With reports from Chen Wang and Danielle Webb
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