Millions of rapid tests are expected to arrive in British Columbia over the next few weeks, but they won’t be widely available to the general public.
Following growing pressure, B.C. health officials announced on Tuesday that they will be increasing access to rapid tests because the province is expecting to receive 11 million tests from the federal government by the end of January as part of their new strategy.
“About 10 million are expected to be the at-home lateral flow tests [Roche SD Biosensor], the ones that we have been planning to receive for some time,” Dr. Bonnie Henry, the provincial health officer said during Tuesday’s press conference.
B.C. has allocated approximately seven million tests for public health and health authorities to help manage community transmission. There will be 700,000 made available for people at sample collection sites for those with symptoms. Half a million tests will be allocated for students and staff in order to support the return to school and continuity of in-person learning. Another 500,000 tests will be allocated for symptomatic post-secondary students, faculty and other staff to support a return to campus.
“This is where we can support families after exposures so that children can remain in school. As well, we will be using them to support a return to campus for post-secondary education, for students, faculty and staff in residences,” Henry said Tuesday.
Timelines for distribution were not made clear and B.C.’s new rapid testing strategy did not include any plans to make tests available to the wider public in any capacity whether it be at pharmacies, grocery stores or medical clinics – despite repeated calls to do so.
When asked why rapid tests aren’t being made more broadly available to the public in British Columbia, Dr. Henry falsely claimed that there aren’t enough tests to do that.
“We do not have enough tests and we have never had enough tests to do that,” she said Tuesday.
According to the latest data available on Health Canada’s website, British Columbia has received 3,399,612 tests as of Dec. 10 but only used 326,019 while distributing 1,261,098 tests.
In a brief interview with CHEK News, interim B.C. Liberal leader Shirley Bond said the province should be using rapid tests far more broadly and doesn’t fault people for questioning how they’re being used.
“I think people are rightly asking questions about that. We have been asking those same questions, in fact, about rapid testing since early on in the pandemic,” she said. “So, I think there’s a lot of concern about lack of availability of rapid tests.”
What are other provinces in Canada doing with rapid test kits?
While Dr. Bonnie Henry continues to claim that there simply aren’t enough tests to make them more widely available to the public, most other provinces have made their tests available to the general public.
Alberta, Ontario, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Saskatchewan and Quebec have made rapid tests free and available to the general public.
The only provinces other than British Columbia where rapid tests aren’t widely available are Manitoba, Newfoundland and Labrador, and Prince Edward Island.
In Manitoba, they are available for certain school-aged segments of the population while in Prince Edward Island they are available to children under the age of 12 as well for some families in areas where testing access was difficult. Newfoundland and Labrador provide rapid tests to travellers entering the province, but they are generally not available to the wider public.
While PCR tests are considered the “gold standard” when it comes to testing, Dr. Amit Arya, a palliative care physician who has a faculty appointment at the University of Toronto, said rapid tests are an excellent tool that is effective against the Omicron variant.
“They tell you whether you are infectious or not at that time, on that day,” he said. “Obviously, it would be a lot better if we had rapid tests all over the community and in the hands of the public.”
Both Health Canada and the U.S. Center for Disease Control discourage against regular use of rapid antigen testing on asymptomatic vaccinated individuals, suggesting that doing so can produce false-positive results, and Dr. Henry has repeatedly said asymptomatic people should avoid using them.
“It is important that these are used for people who have symptoms,” Dr. Henry said during Tuesday’s press conference.
But a recently released study on rapid antigen tests conducted by researchers with Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine found that rapid tests were able to detect the virus in 87 per cent of patients who were infected as well as in 71 per cent of those who were asymptomatic.
Dr. Victor Leung, an infectious diseases physician and medical microbiologist in the Lower Mainland, told CHEK News last week that asymptomatic individuals can still transmit the virus and that rapid tests will still detect whether they are infectious.
“Whether you’re vaccinated or not, this virus doesn’t care and it doesn’t care if you have symptoms or not. Symptoms are not a direct correlation with where someone is at with regards to their viral load. Oftentimes, people are having high detectable viral loads with a rapid antigen test before symptoms occur and those are the people who are transmitting.”
A petition urging B.C. to provide free rapid tests launched earlier this month by an Ontario-based physician has nearly 15,000 signatures.
Dr. Dalia Hasan, who created the petition, previously told CHEK News the B.C. government has blood on its hands for not doing enough to protect residents.
“I don’t know how much bad press, the B.C. government is willing to get before something is lit under them to finally protect their citizens. They have blood on their hands right now and I’m sorry for being you know, very harsh on them. But, it is really surprising to see that they’re putting profits over people, and it is quite frankly, unacceptable,” she told CHEK News earlier this month.
With files from Laura Brougham/CHEK News