Physician urges B.C. to provide free COVID-19 rapid antigen tests

Physician urges B.C. to provide free COVID-19 rapid antigen tests
A doctor behind a grassroots initiative that helps Canadians locate COVID-19 rapid antigen tests is among those calling on B.C. to make those tests free. (Mika Baumeister/Unsplash)

A doctor behind a grassroots initiative that helps Canadians locate COVID-19 rapid antigen tests is among those calling on B.C. to begin making those tests available to the public for free, before the busy holiday gathering period.

Dr. Dalia Hasan, an Ontario-based physician and founder of COVID Test Finders, recently launched a petition urging the Horgan governments to be proactive and provide COVID-19 rapid antigen tests at no cost, particularly as the Omicron variant begins to spread and more people begin getting together for the holidays.

“COVID is a very tricky virus. It is invisible, and it spreads very quickly and we need to use all the public health tools that we have at our disposal that would allow us to have layers of protection to help end this pandemic,” said Hasan, who has also launched a similar petition in Ontario.

Unlike polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests, rapid antigen tests are intended to identify infected individuals before they develop symptoms as well as those who may not develop symptoms at all. Dr. Hasan says that’s a good thing because individuals can be infected with COVID-19 and be extremely contagious without even realizing it.

“COVID is smart and it spreads when you let your guard down. So, rapid tests are able to detect the period that you’re infectious — meaning [when] you’re contagious and able to spread the virus to other people. You can get the result in as little as 15 minutes, which is amazing because there are very few tools that we have in medicine that are able to give you results right away,” said Hasan.

MORE: Doctor derides B.C.’s policy on COVID notifications at post-secondary schools

Although the federal government has provided more than 3.2 million antigen rapid tests to British Columbia, they are difficult to get here — unlike in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Saskatchewan where they are not just available but also free.

“We have nowhere in B.C. that we can just walk up and get them,” explains Dr. Amy Tan, a palliative care doctor in Victoria and a member of Protect Our Province B.C. who has also signed Hasan’s petition. “I had to order mine online … from Ontario.”

Ontario does make rapid antigen tests available for purchase at pharmacies at a cost of around $40 per kit – something that isn’t even an option in British Columbia.

“You can’t just drop into a pharmacy and get one,” said Tan, who also is also urging B.C. to provide such tests should be free and readily available in British Columbia.

According to the BCCDC’s website, such tests are available to those in long-term care and assisted living facilities. Businesses are also able to access them but must apply through the Safe Screen BC Program.

Furthermore, Dr. Bonnie Henry, the provincial health officer, has said that it is unclear whether it makes sense to make rapid tests available for purchase.

Hasan said British Columbia’s stance on rapid tests isn’t acceptable and stressed that such tests should be readily available and free for everyone — especially since they were paid with taxpayer money.

“Taxpayers have paid for rapid tests to be distributed to the provinces and the provinces are not accountable, or not showing any accountability to what they’re doing with these tests,” she said.

RELATED: Petition demands B.C. notify public of COVID-19 exposures, outbreaks at post-secondary institutions

The inaccessibility of such tests is among the reasons why Hasan started COVID Test Finders, a group initiative that helps people find them and aims to raise money to purchase rapid test kits for high-risk and lower-income populations.

“We want to find rapid tests for every single Canadian,” she said. “There’s really no excuse living in Canada and having access to all the public health tools that we need to curb the transmission of COVID and help end this pandemic, and not utilize them.”

Rapid tests also are readily used in other parts of the world, including the United States and Singapore — the latter recently announced that rapid antigen tests will remain a “key” part of their public health strategy even with the arrival of the Omicron variant — and both Hasan and Tan can’t understand why B.C. won’t use them regularly.

“There is no valid reason for why we aren’t using rapid tests,” said Tan.

“Rapid tests aren’t a cure-all. They’re not a panacea, but rather, they’re one piece of the public health puzzle and each puzzle piece represents a different layer of protection and the more puzzle pieces we add, the more likely we are to get back to the picture of our pre-pandemic lives,” said Hasan.

MORE: Horgan claims B.C. is transparent as anywhere in North America with its COVID-19 data — but is he right?

In an e-mailed statement to CHEK News, the Ministry of Health said that the province has slightly under 2 million such tests that are “widely available” to British Columbians, but stressed that PCR testing is the “gold standard” for identifying COVID-19.

“Lab-based PCR testing is the gold standard for diagnosing COVID-19, and B.C. continues to maintain testing capacity in excess of 20,000 lab-based PCR tests per day. Anyone in B.C. who has symptoms of COVID-19, who is part of an outbreak or cluster, or who has otherwise been identified by a Medical Health Officer can receive a PCR test through the public system. Our approach to testing will continue to evolve based on epidemiology, testing capacity and methodology and our growing understanding of the virus, including the Omicron variant.”

However, a recently released study on rapid antigen tests conducted in the United States by researchers with Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine found the tests were able to detect the virus in 87 per cent of patients who had the virus as well as in 71 per cent of those who were asymptomatic. Researchers also found that rapid testing offered countless benefits over PCR testing in terms of both “sampling and processing; cost savings; and most importantly, ease of distribution and application” and can help overcome testing disparities in “medically underserved” communities.

At the end of the day, Hasan said it is clear the B.C. government and public health leaders have “blood on their hands” and are putting profits ahead of people.

“The messaging coming out of the public health leaders has quite frankly been dangerous for their residents. They have denied that COVID is airborne and their messaging is congruent as if COVID is over,” Hasan said, adding. “They’re not welcoming the public health tools that would safeguard their residents. They’re denying that rapid tests are effective and that there’s any utility when that couldn’t be farther from the truth.”

To view the COVID Test Finders petition, click here and to donate to the COVID Test Finders’ campaign, click here.

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Nicholas PescodNicholas Pescod

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