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Free COVID-19 rapid tests will be available until ‘at least’ July 31, Ontario says

Posted: April 1, 2022

(March 30, 2022)

By: Rob Ferguson, The Mississauga News

Free rapid antigen tests for COVID-19 will be available until “at least” July 31 as infection levels jump following the end of vaccination certificates and mandatory masking in most indoor public spaces in Ontario.

Health Minister Christine Elliott’s office announced the change late Wednesday afternoon. Widespread distribution of millions of free tests was to wrap up at the end of next week.

“As an important tool that helps the province manage and live with COVID-19, the government will continue to provide free rapid antigen tests to the general public through existing channels like grocery stores and pharmacies, as well as to workplaces, schools, hospitals, long-term care homes and other congregate settings,” Elliott spokeswoman Alexandra Hilkene said in a statement.

“The province will also continue to provide free rapid antigen tests for asymptomatic screening in highest risk sectors.”

The statement made no mention of the current surge that has seen infections, as measured by limited PCR tests, increase 18 per cent since last Wednesday, with hospitalizations up 24 per cent province-wide in the same period.

Some regional health units are stepping up efforts to fight the rising case count by encouraging residents to wear good-fitting masks in indoor public settings and get vaccinated or boosted if they haven’t done so.

“The COVID-19 wastewater viral signal is very high and increasing,” Ottawa public health officer Dr. Vera Etches said Wednesday, noting that the rate of people testing positive is also rising.

Meanwhile, a prominent public health lobby group wants to see the return of widespread free PCR testing for COVID-19, arguing limiting who qualifies is forcing people to private labs — an alleged breach of the Canada Health Act.

“The Ford government strictly curtailed public (PCR) testing, forcing Ontarians to use the private, for-profit clinics or go without, and increasingly we’ve been receiving complaints from patients about exorbitant charges for COVID-19 tests in the private clinics,” Natalie Mehra, executive director of the Ontario Health Coalition told a news conference Wednesday.

It’s a violation of “the Canada Health Act prohibition against charging user fees for medically necessary services,” Mehra said. PCR tests range in cost from $129 to $200 or more.

In late December as the fifth or Omicron wave of the pandemic hit, free PCR testing was limited to front-line health-care workers and others at highest risk of infection. That wave of COVID-19 drove up the number of daily cases and overwhelmed the provincial testing system.

Since then, Premier Doug Ford’s government has been deploying more rapid tests as a substitute for PCR tests, which are the gold standard for detecting COVID-19.

Ontario’s public laboratory system is now operating well below maximum capacity which means there is room to increase testing, Mehra said. And increased PCR testing, which is tracked, would be a good way to monitor the current COVID-19 surge driven by the BA.2 sub-variant of Omicron, she said. Rapid testing is not tracked.

“It’s obvious that a sixth wave is upon us … and that’s not good for reopening,” said Liberal House Leader and health critic John Fraser (Ottawa South), joining the coalition’s push for more PCR testing.

But Elliott’s office said eligibility for PCR tests is not being changed, with the testing “readily available to those living and working in the highest-risk settings.

That includes health-care workers seeing patients, the families of those health-care workers, emergency room patients, hospital outpatients who require diagnostic tests, temporary foreign workers living in congregate settings, anyone pregnant or homeless, home and community care workers, and police, firefighters and paramedics.

“Individuals with symptoms consistent with COVID-19 are presumed positive and should follow isolation and/or self-monitoring guidelines,” said Hilkene.

“We have complemented this with a robust rapid testing strategy, and continue to make five million rapid tests available to the general public every week, including at assessment centres for those that don’t require a PCR test,” she added.

Rob Ferguson is a Toronto-based reporter covering Ontario politics for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @robferguson1

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