Ottawa will stop providing COVID-19 rapid tests to regions

The Government of Canada plans to stop supplying provinces and territories with free COVID-19 rapid tests, which has an infection control epidemiologist worried about two-tiered health care, increased spread and increased health-care costs.

“The federal government continues to support Canada’s rapid testing needs while the federal inventory remains,” Health Canada spokesperson Nicholas Janveau told CBC News.

“That said, rapid test programming was and continues to be a provincial/territorial responsibility.”

Ottawa currently has about 70 million of the tests, which people can use at home to screen for the virus. About 3.6 million of these have already expired and are ineligible for distribution.

The tests usually come in boxes of five, which would mean an inventory of just over 13 million test kits.

Given the current COVID-19 outlook, inventory levels, and indicated testing demands, the federal government does not anticipate the need for additional federal procurements at this time.– Nicholas Janveau, Health Canada spokesperson

Canada’s estimated population, as of Jan. 1, is nearly 41 million, according to Statistics Canada.

While Health Canada has authorized extending the shelf life of some rapid tests, all of the tests in the federal inventory will expire by December, said Janveau.

“Given the current COVID-19 outlook, inventory levels, and indicated testing demands, the federal government does not anticipate the need for additional federal procurements at this time,” he said in an emailed statement.

Public health should not be based on ‘ability to pay’

Infection control epidemiologist Colin Furness, a self-described “early and strong proponent of rapid tests,” who has spent years saying more resources are needed to fight the pandemic, said he’s not surprised Ottawa wants to “get out of the testing game” and doesn’t blame the federal government since health care is a provincial and territorial responsibility.

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The problem, said Furness, is that if the jurisdictions don’t step up to provide free, or at least subsidized tests, people will be forced to buy them if they want to know whether they’re COVID-positive and should take measures to prevent transmission. And this creates a divide.

Colin Furness, an infection control epidemiologist and associate professor at the University of Toronto, contends free rapid tests should continue to be available through provinces and territories because there are still enough people who care if they’re COVID-positive and want to avoid getting anyone else sick. (Katarina Kuruc)

“Public health should not be based on your ability to pay,” said Furness, an associate professor at the University of Toronto.

Some people can afford to buy rapid tests, available at some pharmacies, stores and online for about $7 plus tax per test, but “many can’t.”

“I think we should be very cognizant that rapid tests are part of what makes us healthy. It’s part of health care. It’s a diagnostic [tool] and it just doesn’t make sense to commodify it,” said Furness. “It’s just going to create sickness and sickness is expensive for everybody.”

N.B. to determine next steps for its program

At least one province is mulling the future of its COVID-19 rapid point-of-care testing program. Last week, New Brunswick said demand for the tests has declined steadily since last fall, and the province is “determining next steps.”

New Brunswick has an adequate supply of the tests, which are all due to expire in September, said  Department of Health spokesperson Sean Hatchard.

He did not say how many, but the federal government’s website shows New Brunswick had an estimated inventory of 147,000 tests from Ottawa, as of last June — the smallest stockpile in the country. The department has previously said it has an additional reserve of tests, however, beyond what is reported on the federal website.

Hatchard did not say if the province plans to order any more.

Lack of public health policies, messaging

Furness said it’s no surprise demand for rapid tests has dropped because public health officials across the country aren’t telling people to test.

“They’re going along with the narrative that really there isn’t any more COVID, or very little, and this is not something you need to worry about,” he said.

Similarly, there are no COVID policies, said Furness.

A woman with long, wavy blond hair, sticking a swab stick up her nostril to test for COVID-19.
Public health officials have been encouraging people to take responsibility for their own health but a lack of available COVID-19 tests will interfere with that, argued Furness. (CBC)

“I mean, what good is it to test positive if you still have to go to work because you need to feed your family and you don’t have any paid sick days, right?

“What good is a rapid test when public health guidance says, ‘Well, as long as you feel pretty good and you’re not coughing too hard, you should go ahead and go to work?'”

Stay home when sick, regardless of testing

Testing is an important tool to limit the spread of COVID-19, along with personal protective measures and vaccination, the Health Canada spokesperson acknowledged.

“Rapid tests may be used to quickly identify if you have COVID-19, and isolate if the result is positive,” said Janveau.

Still, the Public Health Agency of Canada recommends anyone who feels sick or has COVID-like symptoms stay home and limit their contact with others — regardless of whether they’ve tested positive or not, he said.

Federal strategic reserve no longer maintained

Ottawa ordered more than 811 million rapid tests throughout the pandemic, at a cost of about $5 billion. Of those, roughly 680 million went to provincial and territorial rapid testing programs.

The contents of a COVID-19 antigen rapid test kit on display.
The free COVID-19 rapid tests commonly come in boxes of five. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

A federal strategic reserve of rapid tests was maintained until Dec. 31, to ensure tests were readily available in Canada in case of future COVID-19 waves or an increase in demand, said Janveau.  

While that reserve is no longer maintained, “provinces and territories have continued to receive rapid tests from the federal inventory upon request and while supplies last,” he said.

Janveau did not say how many tests have expired to date, or at what cost.

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