Rapid COVID-19 test kits are a hot commodity in the province right now.
After LCBO stores across Ontario ran out of the initial 200,000 free test kits within one day of distribution, some kits started popping up for sale on online platforms like Craigslist and TikTok.
According to an infectious disease expert, the long line ups for rapid tests is again indicative of a lack of a targeted, equitable approach that is needed for testing.
On Friday and Saturday, lines wrapped around buildings as Torontonians waited in line for free rapid tests the province was giving out at six locations in all of Toronto, along with the 21 local LCBO locations. 100 LCBO stores across the province participated in the program.
“All of these test kits have now been distributed. Many thanks to the LCBO for participating in Ontario’s pop-up COVID-19 testing holiday program,” the Ontario government confirmed in a notice posted to their website.
Many lined up by 7:30 a.m. in queues reminiscent of testing lines in 2020 as news of Omicron’s surge hit the province in the last few days. Positive cases reached 3,301 on Saturday.
“Who can afford to stay in line like that for that many hours?” said Dr. Andrew Boozary, director of social medicine and population health at the University Health Network.
The issues being seen with the rapid tests, where only those who have time to wait in lines and research the sites and timings, is the same scenario that has played out with testing and vaccinations since the pandemic began, said Boozary.
“It’s really disheartening because we’ve been through this before,” he said. “We’re not getting easy access to testing.”
He said the location of the rapid tests — which have been overwhelmingly in the city’s core, where young professionals with a disposable income live — ends up excluding those living in neighbourhoods, like the northwest of the city, where the rapid tests are needed the most.
“And as we’re seeing the rollout of rapid antigen tests, this is again systemic discrimination on repeat. Neighbourhoods that have poverty and the highest positivity rates, have the least access,” he said.
Taking an “equity blind approach” yet again also leads to people trying to take advantage of these disparities by selling free tests they had the ability to acquire, he explained.
Some kits are being resold online. They appear to be Rapid Response antigen tests, the same brand being handed out by the province. Posters on Craigslist and TikTok were asking anywhere between $80 and $100 per box of five tests.
“It’s morally repugnant in a pandemic that some people are looking to profit off life-saving measures by grabbing free antigen tests,” said Boozary.
One seller said that they had gotten the test kit from their workplace free of cost.
In March 2020, Ontario announced fines of up to $500,000 for those who raise prices significantly for “necessary goods” which at the time included PPE, non-prescription medications to treat COVID-19 symptoms, personal hygiene products and disinfectants. These fines were also aimed at those who listed these items on online classifieds platforms for inflated prices.
Several Toronto Shoppers Drug Marts have stopped selling rapid antigen tests as take-home kits, but rapid antigen tests are still available inside the pharmacy for $40.
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Boozary said that people who have the greatest need for these tests should be given priority, without the cost barrier.
“We’ve gone through this so many times. If we can’t hardwire these learnings, it’s the same communities left out,” he said.
Boozary said he hopes that whatever tests are not being used can be donated to places like community centres, where their staff and clients have not had access to free rapid tests from the province.
The Ontario Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care told the Star that two million rapid tests were provided for free at pop-up testing sites in “high traffic” areas such as malls, public libraries, and transit hubs.
“We recognize there is significant demand for rapid tests and are pleased to see so many people embrace the opportunity to add an extra layer of protection,” said the Ministry.
But, the Ministry added that Ontario has a limited supply of rapid tests and “every single test” the province has received from the federal government has gone out to workplaces, hospitals, home and community care settings, schools and child care centres along with the pop-ups.
Ahead of new health restrictions that will go into effect Sunday that limits capacity to 50 per cent for most indoor settings including restaurants, malls and sports venues, and limits on indoor gatherings reduced to 10 people — acquiring the rapid tests is being seen as a necessity for small holiday gatherings.
At the Eaton Centre in Toronto, the mall appeared to be busy, but the news of Omicron’s spread and rising case counts have stunted any last minute holiday shopping, said Jashan Kaur, one of the managers at Canadian Personalized Ornaments, a Christmas ornament kiosk in the mall.
She and the other manager said foot traffic was down Saturday and they felt the mall was less busy than usual, for the final weekend before Christmas Day.
“There aren’t many customers, as there should be for Christmas time,” she said, adding that the mall was much busier at the start of the week.
Everything has changed as the numbers have gone up, and if that mall is less busy that’s an indication people might be staying home, said Dr. Anna Banerji, a pediatrician and an infectious disease physician at the University of Toronto.
But stocking up on rapid tests and using them to justify gatherings is a problem, she explained.
“If you’re going to someplace where you have to go, like a long-term-care facility, it makes sense … but having them as an excuse to be at larger events, that’s not what it was meant for,” she explained.
It could give a false sense of security.
“You might not be symptomatic, and the test is not perfect. People still need to be cautious,” she said.
Akrit Michael is a breaking news reporter, working out of the Star’s radio room in Toronto. Reach him via email: [email protected]
Olivia Bowden is a Toronto-based staff reporter for the Star. Reach her via email: [email protected]
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