The Ottawa project uses artificial intelligence to get COVID tests for those who are hard to reach

The COVID-19 molecular self-test consists of a self-nasal swab and a test tube containing an agent. Thirty minutes after the swab was placed in the test tube, it flashes positively or negatively.

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In 2019, Ottawa Nursing Professor and Public Health Nurse Patrick O’Byrne began working on a plan to send self-testing HIV kits to people who may be facing barriers by entering a clinic for testing.

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When the pandemic hit, closed or limited many HIV testing clinics, that work became urgent.

O’Byrne and his team used artificial intelligence developed for the program to identify those who would benefit most. GetaKit.ca has since expanded throughout Ontario.

The program was so successful that Health Canada contacted O’Byrne earlier this year to ask if the artificial intelligence and program could be adapted for COVID-19 testing as part of a pilot program.

It could and has. That program – GetaKit.ca/COVID – has now been launched and the team hopes to get the word out to people who would benefit from having a quick test sent to their homes via social media and other means.

O’Byrne, who continues to work for Ottawa Public Health in his sexual health clinic in addition to teaching, said both programs are close to his heart.

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“I was a nurse before I became a researcher. Helping people who are vulnerable and marginalized to access the care and services they need is my first and foremost priority, ”he said.

The COVID-19 test program uses the same platform as the HIV program, but instead sends COVID-19 rapid tests to people in identified high-risk groups and adapts the algorithm to the pandemic.

The program uses Health Canada licensed Lucira COVID-19 all-in-one testing, which differs from antigen and polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing. It is molecular with a sensitivity of 92 percent according to studies compared to PCR tests. People who test positive must still have a PCR test to confirm the results, just like those who test negative but are high-risk contacts.

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Close-up of the contents of the quick COVID self-test, which includes a swab, information sheet, batteries and an analyzer.
Close-up of the contents of the quick COVID self-test, which includes a swab, information sheet, batteries and an analyzer. Photo by Julie Oliver /Postmedia

It is for people 16 and older who show symptoms of COVID-19, or have been in contact with a person who has tested positive or shows symptoms, or is black, native, or a colored person at risk for COVID-19.

These groups can visit the site and order the kit delivered to their home in a few days or less.

The COVID-19 molecular self-test consists of a self-nasal swab and a test tube containing an agent. Thirty minutes after the swab was placed in the test tube, it flashes positively or negatively.

Participants are encouraged to report their results. Those who test positive are automatically sent daily public health reminders.

The program made a soft launch a week ago and has already sent more than 30 kits out into the Ottawa region and parts of eastern Ontario, O’Byrne said.

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In addition to helping identify people who may have barriers to regular testing, it prevents people from having to get on a crowded bus or travel some distance to be tested.

The program also asks participants if they have been vaccinated and offers information and help to book an appointment.

Public health officials have said the number of people testing positive for COVID-19 in the city is only the tip of the iceberg, and many more people are not being tested. The mail-home test program helps solve this.

“We know that any barrier is a barrier for some people,” O’Byrne said.

The program has 8,000 self-tests to distribute.

As with the HIV program, the COVID-19 test program is a learning experience for researchers and public health experts and can help inform them about future pandemics, O’Byrne said.

The HIV program identified positive cases at a rate five times higher than in traditional testing, suggesting that it helps people who would otherwise be missed.

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