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Ontario says it has distributed 34 million rapid-test kits to businesses, essential workplaces, hospitals, long-term care homes and child-care centres.Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press

The Ontario government is facing increasing calls to distribute more rapid COVID-19 tests for free as infections rise and the winter holidays approach, but Premier Doug Ford insists his province’s current approach is leading the country.

Medical experts and opposition politicians say Ontario needs to get these rapid antigen test kits into as many hands as possible and should make them widely available – free of charge – to anyone who wants to use them.

Ontario says it has distributed 34 million rapid-test kits to businesses, essential workplaces, hospitals, long-term care homes and child-care centres. The province has also pledged to provide another 11 million rapid tests for schools, sending home five with every student before the winter holidays. And it plans to roll out more rapid tests over the next few weeks for asymptomatic people at pop-up centres in malls and transit hubs.

But anyone who has not received one through those channels must pay for them online or get one at a local drugstore, where they cost $40.

Critics say some other jurisdictions, both in Canada and abroad, have made it much easier for people to get their hands on rapid tests for free. In Britain, for instance, tests were sent to every household. This allows families to test themselves before visits with elderly relatives, for example, and catch the virus in people without symptoms who might spread it.

Federal Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos told reporters on Wednesday that he would be speaking with provinces and territories in the evening about various issues, including rapid tests. He promised more would be coming soon.

“We are very soon going to deliver to provinces and territories a very large amount of rapid tests, much larger than what we’ve seen over the last few months,” he said.

Both the Opposition NDP and Liberals called Wednesday for widespread distribution of free rapid-test kits, pointing to five million tests that remain in the province’s stockpile – almost all of which were provided by the federal government.

The Premier, who called rapid tests a “game-changer” in the pandemic a year ago, said Ontario has handed out more rapid tests than all other provinces combined, and is distributing a million tests a week.

“There’s no one that’s handing out ... more tests than we are,” Mr. Ford told reporters at an infrastructure announcement in Peterborough, Ont., on Wednesday. “We’re covering the gamut of making sure that people have the test.”

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But the province’s distribution of the tests only in certain settings has left many scrambling to buy their own. Opposition critics and medical experts also say low-income people may not be able to afford the tests as easily as others in the province.

“We should be making rapid tests free right now, and handing out as many as we possibly can,” Opposition NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said.

Ontario Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca said the Ford government should have put a plan in place to distribute free tests more widely months ago, adding, “I would have made them free. I would have made them accessible.”

In the legislature, Health Minister Christine Elliott answered an opposition question on the issue by insisting that anyone who needs a test can get one at a pharmacy for free – something her staff clarified later in an e-mail, saying she was referring to PCR tests, rather than rapid antigen tests.

Rapid tests – which produce a result in less than 15 minutes – are less reliable than the gold-standard lab-confirmed polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test, and anyone who tests positive on a rapid test is advised to also get a PCR test afterward.

In order to get a free PCR test in Ontario, in most cases, people must have symptoms or have been identified as a close contact of someone who has tested positive. The tests are available at hospital-run assessment centres and some pharmacies. Getting results can sometimes take days.

Dalia Hasan, a doctor in Kitchener, Ont., is the founder of a Twitter account – @C19TestFinders – that campaigns for more rapid tests and solicits donations to purchase tests for vulnerable groups. She said Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Saskatchewan have all made rapid tests widely available to the general public and those without symptoms, unlike in Ontario, Alberta or B.C.

“That’s why we’re campaigning so hard, because we see it’s possible in some parts of the country,” Dr. Hasan said. “There’s no reason why it can’t be the whole country.”

Ontario health officials have in the past been reluctant to use rapid tests widely across the population when rates of COVID-19 were lower, warning that the tests can produce false positives. Earlier in the fall, the province resisted calls to distribute them widely in schools, even denying the tests to parents’ groups that sought to organize testing in their school communities.

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