OLDS — A motion by a town councillor for the municipality to provide COVID-19 rapid antigen testing for the month of February in town-owned facilities failed when virtually no other councillor voted for it.
Instead, the Town of Olds is continuing to operate the provincial government's Restrictions Exemption Program (REP) in its recreational facilities, as it has since fall.
Under the REP, Albertans are required to show proof of vaccination or a medical exemption or a negative COVID-19 test in order to enter various facilities and venues. One example where that is enforced is in the municipally-owned Sportsplex.
Coun. Harvey Walsh made the motion for antigen testing. He had asked administrative staff to look into the option and what it would cost to do so during a Dec. 6 meeting which attracted a large crowd in council chambers opposed to the REP.
Walsh said the month-long experiment would give town officials a chance to see what it really does cost for the municipality to operate and pay for the testing program as opposed to the REP.
Walsh said he was approached by a person who said they were qualified to administer the rapid antigen test. The figure of $60 an hour was mentioned.
He said the REP is “unfair” for unvaccinated residents as they can’t -- for example -- get into the Sportsplex to see their kids play hockey, despite having paid fees for them to play, as well as taxes to keep the facility operating.
Walsh said the REP is also unfair because COVID seems to be transmitted equally between those who are unvaccinated and those who aren’t.
“It's just discriminatory at this point in time, because everybody can contract COVID and everybody can transmit at this point in time,” he said.
“I’m thinking we could help people who just want to attend with their children who have paid significant fees so their kids could play hockey.”
However, Coun. Dan Daley said health officials have said although vaccinations don’t totally prevent people from getting COVID, if vaccinated people do contract it, their symptoms tend to be less severe than for the unvaccinated.
Walsh voted for his motion but virtually no one else did.
Council did however pass a motion to accept an update on the REP in town facilities, provided by community services director Doug Wagstaff as information.
Wagstaff said town officials chose to implement the REP in town-owned recreational facilities rather than another option – a limit of one-third capacity, because “it is clear to understand it’s simple to communicate, it’s easy to implement, it’s enforceable and it’s consistent.”
Wagstaff said administrative staff have determined that via the REP, the Town of Olds can provide more recreational opportunities for residents than under the one-third capacity option.
He said apart from a couple of newly tightened rules restricting food service alcohol consumption and the requirement to wear masks, “once people are inside a recreation facility, our programming and delivery of programs is as close to pre-COVID operations as we can get.”
Wagstaff said town staff looked into the possibility of utilizing rapid antigen tests but said “those are not valid tests for implementation with the Restriction Exemption Program.”
He said tests that will be accepted have to be PCR or lab tests, completed off-site and/or by a self-produced negative result.
"You have to get that from a doctor or pharmacy or a lab somewhere else,” Wagstaff said.
A rapid antigen program would be very cumbersome, Wagstaff said, because, if town-administered, employees would have to “seek expert advice, including medical oversight prior to implementing such a program.”
Furthermore, he said, such tests would have to be conducted by those professionals “within their scope of practices or an accredited laboratory that oversees such a process is able to produce those tests.”
He said the Town of Olds doesn’t have staff available to undertake such tests themselves.
Coun. Heather Ryan echoed Wagstaff’s point about the need to hire qualified people to administer rapid antigen tests.
She also expressed concern about what the costs for that would be.
“My quick calculation is that’s $17,280 a week, just to have somebody sitting there who could administer the test,” she said.
She said such costs would be “just an astronomical hit to our budget.”
Ryan said she saw Walsh’s point that the issue is dividing the community, but she said every community is facing that problem.
She agreed with Wagstaff that, given all the factors, the REP “is the only way to go” to provide the most recreational opportunities for the greatest number of residents.
Discussion on the matter – including Wagstaff’s presentation – lasted about 34 minutes.