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‘You could feel tension in the air’: Scramble for free COVID-19 rapid tests leaves many empty-handed


‘You could feel tension in the air’: Scramble for free COVID-19 rapid tests leaves many empty-handed

Thousands queued up across Ontario Thursday morning for a chance at free COVID-19 rapid test kits from the province, though many left empty-handed.

Eight official rapid test pop-ups in the GTA were organized by the province Thursday, announced only the day before. All but one were indoor and three were in malls.

Each location drew massive lineups and all reportedly ran out of tests early. Lenny Stone, along with hundreds of others, arrived early at Mississauga’s Square One looking for a test.

“It was crazy how many people showed up,” said Stone. “A lot of people were frustrated. They thought it was ridiculous there was only one kiosk distributing. You could feel tension in the air.”

Stone had previously tried to limit his time in shopping malls throughout the pandemic, particularly as cases of the Omicron variant surge.

On Thursday, Toronto reported 755 new COVID-19 cases. The daily average last week was 218 and that was a 66 per cent jump over the previous week, which was the seventh straight week of increasing virus spread.

“It was unnerving being in there,” said Stone. “The way the line was setup, we had many people cutting in front of us constantly to get through the mall. I was very happy to get out of there.”

In a statement to the Star, the Ministry of Health said it decided to host some pop-ups in malls because people are likely to already be there.

“Local health partners and businesses have identified locations where higher traffic is anticipated over the holiday season and where vaccinated and unvaccinated people are likely to gather,” said ministry spokesperson Bill Campbell.

Stone, who does work related to health equity, said the way the pop-ups are organized can be barriers to some communities. Not everyone, particularly essential workers who perhaps have the greatest need for rapid test kits, are able to line up at a mall on a weekday morning

“It’s not the most organized approach,” he said. “Alberta is rolling out its rapid test program tomorrow and it seems a lot more organized than this was. They have specific spots people will go to get kits every two weeks.

“The pop-up schedule Ontario has online is only for three days. What happens after those three days?”

Amanda Ferguson got her tests at Waterpark Place Thursday morning. She set an alarm for 7 a.m. and drove right over. Ferguson said the “Toronto mentality” helped her form a plan of attack to secure a kit.


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“When you’re fighting for concert tickets, or any other pop-ups or giveaways, if you’re not there first, you’re risking walking away empty-handed,” she said. “That was my strategy. Set the alarm, lose an hour or two of sleep, but it’s worth it to get the piece of mind of having (the tests).”

In Hamilton, a city of nearly 800,000, there was only one test kit pop-up. Its stock was depleted in minutes.

Dan Jelly got to the pop-up at 9 a.m., when it was supposed to start. The province had sent a bus to hand tests out in a local park.

He hoped, through testing, his family might “have some semblance of a normal Christmas this year.” Ten minutes after he arrived, he and the hundreds ahead of him in line, some of whom he was told arrived as early as 6 a.m., were told there were no tests left.

“It was frustrating, disappointing — I’m angry,” he said. “Health care in a park is weird enough, but we’re a city of more than half a million people and all we got is one bus. Nowhere else in town is distributing (rapid tests) and I’ll have to skip Christmas if I don’t get one.”

The government of Ontario announced Wednesday free rapid test kits would also be given out in select LCBOs in the province, including 21 in Toronto.

“Health care in an LCBO is not appropriate,” said Jelly. “I have friends who are recovering alcoholics — they don’t want to go into an LCBO for any reason, ever. One is five years sober and this is the worst possible time of the year for him to be anywhere near one.”

The Ministry of Health told the Star it recognizes that “some individuals may not feel comfortable visiting an LCBO, which is why we have ensured that rapid tests are available through multiple sites.”

It said the crown corporation was chosen to help distribute tests because it has “locations throughout the province and an established distribution network.”

Lyndsay Butlin didn’t even make it into the line for a test in Hamilton. Nor the parking lot near it. She was stuck in traffic for 10 minutes outside the park.

“It’s frustrating because other provinces have been giving these tests out for so long,” she said. Nova Scotia and Saskatchewan have made free rapid test kits available to residents for months.

Butlin ended up ordering 25 rapid tests online from Canadian Life Science for $200 and was told the tests would be shipped once in stock.

“It looks like even buying rapid tests to get before Christmas may not be an option,” she said.

Ben Cohen is a Toronto-based staff reporter for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @bcohenn

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