Beginning today, Ontarians and Albertans can buy an asymptomatic rapid antigen testing for COVID-19 at Shoppers Drug Mart and Loblaw pharmacy locations, receiving results within 15 to 20 minutes.
The rapid testing is available to anyone who has no symptoms of COVID, has not been in contact with someone known to have the virus within the past 14 days, has not been advised to get tested through an exposure notification through the COVID Alert app and has not previously tested positive. The tests are priced at $40.
“As Ontario and Alberta begin their recovery from this third wave of COVID-19, rapid screening options can provide customers with an extra level of confidence,” said Ashesh Desai, executive vice-president of pharmacy and health care for Shoppers.
Dr. Gaibrie Stephen, emergency room physician at Trillium Health Partners’ Credit Valley Hospital, said the price is a barrier. For a minimum wage earner, $40 is almost half the daily wage, he added.
“It’s very clear who is excluded from purchasing these kinds of swabs,” Stephen said. “It’s going to be the low-wage worker, and the people who are living off government assistance services.”
In England, the government began providing residents with free, rapid COVID tests twice a week on April 9. The Abbott Panbio rapid test — manufactured in the U.S. and now being used in pharmacies across the province and internationally — has a suggested retail price of $29.94 (Canadian).
“The test takes into account the cost of the test to the business, additional materials required to support the testing program, and the pharmacist’s time to perform the test,” said Catherine Thomas, a Loblaw spokesperson.
In January, millions of the Abbott Panbio tests distributed across Canada remained unused, spurring online speculation rapid antigen tests now sold at Loblaw were supplied by the province.
“We purchased the tests used in this program directly from the manufacturer,” Thomas said.
According to federal data, Ontario received around 6.9 million Abbott Panbio tests and has reported over 1.9 million have been used as of May 14. The federal government purchased over 40 million units of four rapid tests. In total, around 2.6 million have been used. Over 22 million of those received by Canada were the Abbott Panbio.
Rapid antigen screening can identify the presence of antigens, proteins on a virus’s surface. While this may indicate a person has an active COVID infection, “a follow-up COVID-19 polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test is needed to confirm a COVID-19 diagnosis,” according to the Shoppers website.
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Stephen noted rapid antigen tests are only conducted on symptomatic individuals at his emergency department. “The false negative rate is quite high in asymptomatic persons, and I worry about how this might create a false sense of security,”
Ottawa’s latest guidance on rapid antigen detection tests recommends “repeat serial testing of asymptomatic individuals as an addition to other infection prevention and control measure.”
An interim guidance document released by the Public Health Agency of Canada on the Abbott Panbio test in January stated all negatives should be considered “preliminary negatives” and confirming with PCR tests would likely be a burden for labs.
An onboarding guide published by Ontario Health on March 5 states that for people with very low likelihood of COVID, such as asymptomatic people with no known exposure, a “negative result is likely to be a true negative.”
The patient document handed out at a Shoppers or Loblaw pharmacy says if an Abbott Panbio screening is positive, the pharmacist must report the “preliminary positive” to the local public health unit where the screening was conducted. A follow-up polymerase chain reaction test is needed to confirm a diagnosis. If the result of the screening is negative, “no further action is required.”
“I don’t know why private companies are selling swabs in a pandemic,” Stephen said. “We should be making the most equitable choices, and making swabs available to all people.”
Ontario’s Ministry of Health said the Loblaw initiative to provide rapid antigen testing to asymptomatic individuals is the only option available to the general public at present. Free rapid antigen screening tests are available at participating pharmacies for asymptomatic people who are part of a targeted antigen screening program and through the Provincial Antigen Screening Program for employer/employees who cannot work from home, said Alexandra Hilkene, press secretary for the health minister.
Through Ontario’s Provincial Antigen Screening Program, more than nine million rapid testing kits were delivered to nearly 1,600 high-risk and essential workplaces to help screen for asymptomatic cases. Employees of various prioritized sectors can access the tests for free. They include: all long-term-care and retirement homes across the province; other congregate care and living settings; essential industries and essential services; education and health sectors.
Additionally, asymptomatic PCR testing is available for free for various eligible groups at Shoppers locations through the provincial program. They include: international students that have passed their 14-day quarantine period; people who self-identify as Indigenous; farm workers; staff working in schools and child-care settings; and others.
The rapid antigen tests are processed immediately in the pharmacy, with a record of the test and results provided to patients after their visit. Customers are encouraged to call their local store directly to book a test.
People who have received a COVID vaccine are eligible.
Maria Sarrouh is a Toronto-based staff reporter for the Star. Reach her via email: [email protected]
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