The B.C. government is finally making rapid COVID-19 antigen tests available to the broader community.
On Wednesday, health officials announced that the general public will be able to get rapid tests free of charge at various pharmacies throughout the province beginning Friday.
Availablity will start for those 70 years and over who are amongst those at highest risk of more severe illness from COVID-19. Younger age groups will become eligible in the coming days and weeks.
Dr. Bonnie Henry, the provincial health officer, said Wednesday the rapid test kits are best suited for symptomatic individuals.
“These tests are a tool that helps you determine what activities you can do if you have symptoms, that is when they are best used … they are a red light, not a green light,” she said. “If you have symptoms and you need to know if they are COVID, then these rapid tests are a really great way of doing that and then you need to isolate.”
Henry said those who have symptoms but test negative on a rapid test, will still need to take precautions by staying away from others until better.
Each rapid antigen test kit will contain five tests and in order to get them, individuals must present their BC Services Card at the pharmacy. There will be a limit of one kit per person within a 28-day period.
Test kits can be picked up for a family member or someone else, but only the individual picking them up provides that person’s name, date of birth and BC Services Card.
Adrian Dix, the province’s minister of health, stressed Wednesday that the rapid test kits are free.
“There will be no costs to citizens for these tests. More than 865,000 have already been pre-positioned to a pharmacy distributor in which pharmacies can order and receive stocks,” he said.
RELATED: Doctors skeptical of B.C.’s rapid test strategy, question Henry’s rationale
B.C. health officials have faced repeated criticism over the past few months for not making rapid tests available to the general public, especially after other provinces began distributing them to their residents at the beginning of the Omicron wave.
Throughout the pandemic, rapid tests — paid for by the federal government and provided to the provinces free of charge — have been made available to businesses for a fee, and to long-term care and assisted living facilities. Data obtained by CHEK News last month showed that 539,510 tests were distributed to businesses across the province.
Amid a surge of Omicron cases in late December, the province announced a new rapid test strategy that included making them available at COVID testing sites, K-12 schools and other settings but not to the broader public.
On Wednesday, Dix said that the government had been distributing the rapid tests it had to key areas such as high priority populations and other settings.
“The priorities have been the priorities that we have laid out over the last while. We have seen the distribution [of rapid tests] to those priorities as sufficient numbers of rapid tests come into place.”
New data provided by the province shows, B.C. has received 22,242,902 as of Feb. 22 and distributed 14,843,222 of them, including more than 800,000 to businesses and organizations. There are also more than seven million tests on hand that have not been distributed.
Dix said going forward, the rapid test strategy has been shifted to making them more available for at-home use.
“We are developing new approaches and you are seeing that in evidence,” he said.
RELATED: B.C. has used less than 10% of its rapid antigen tests, officials say they don’t prevent transmission
NEW: B.C. has distributed more than 869,301 rapid #COVID19 tests to businesses and organizations.
Total of 14,843,222 rapid tests distributed/deployed in B.C. as of Feb. 22.
Here is a breakdown: pic.twitter.com/VF7xtcI5v8
— Nicholas M. Pescod (@npescod) February 23, 2022
A previous version of this story is below
B.C.’s top doctor and health minister will provide an update on COVID-19 Wednesday for the first time since relaxing many pandemic restrictions last week.
Dr. Bonnie Henry and Adrian Dix will speak to media at 3 p.m. CHEK News will stream it live here, on TV and on CHEK+.
The update comes as the number of hospitalizations and people in intensive care due to COVID-19 is on the decline.
On Tuesday, the province announced that there were 2,103 estimated new cases over the long weekend, 337 of which were in Island Health.
Health officials also reported 44 deaths due to COVID over the Family Day long weekend.
There are currently 688 people hospitalized with COVID-19 and 108 are in intensive care.
Last week, the government lifted capacity limits for organized gatherings and indoor seated events like Canucks games, and lifted restrictions on dancing in bars and nightclubs.