Priority strategies to optimize testing and screening for COVID-19 in Canada: Report from the COVID-19 Testing and Screening Expert Advisory Panel 

Backgrounder

January 2021

In November 2020, the Minister of Health established a COVID-19 Testing and Screening Expert Advisory Panel. The Panel provides evidence-informed advice to the federal government on science and policy related to innovative and existing approaches to testing and screening. The Panel has a mandate to focus on key areas in order to help reduce the number of infections, protect Canada's most vulnerable populations, and limit the impact of the disease on the health care system and the economy.

In their first report, the Panel provides advice to the Minister on COVID-19 testing and screening. They have identified four priority areas for action:

Optimizing diagnostic capacity with lab-based PCR testing

  • Create higher and lower-priority streams for specimen collection and testing where capacity is constrained. This means prioritizing PCR testing (known as the gold standard of testing) for symptomatic people or those who have had potential exposure to the virus.
  • 'Task shifting' in the health workforce to increase testing capacity: this would ensure health professionals such as dentists, pharmacists, and others could support testing and screening efforts.

Deploying rapid tests for screening

  • Use rapid tests in higher-risk settings such as schools, group homes, shelters and others to screen for infection.
  • Test frequently and confirm positive results from screening with PCR tests.
  • Use screening with rapid tests to limit outbreaks in congregate and high-risk settings, such as long-term care.
  • Consider operational requirements for rapid test deployment by ensuring those conducting screening are properly trained.

Considering equity in testing and screening measures

  • Leverage both lab-based PCR and rapid tests to fill in testing gaps in key geographical locations as well as with specific populations and settings. This will ensure greater access to testing.
  • Tailor strategies to improve access to testing and screening in under-served and higher-risk communities.
  • Reduce barriers to testing for precarious (poorly paid, insecure, unprotected) workers.

Improving communications strategies

  • Reduce language, knowledge and accessibility barriers in all forms of public health communications related to testing and screening in order to improve understanding and acceptance of public health messaging.
  • Use targeted strategies to improve outreach to high-transmission and high-risk population groups.
  • Provide clear guidance tools to help individuals identify if they need testing.

In the coming months, the Panel plans to provide additional guidance in subsequent reports in other areas of testing and screening.

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