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A worker hands out a free rapid antigen test at Masonville Place in London, Ontario, on January 6, 2022. The provincial government has been handing out the kits at various locations across the province for the last two weeks.GEOFF ROBINS/AFP/Getty Images

With COVID-19 cases rising in many provinces, more Canadians are seeing rapid antigen tests as a way to protect their friends and family as we head into the holiday season. Some provinces are distributing rapid tests free to the general public, but in most provinces, you’ll have to pay for them at pharmacies or purchase them online through sites like Rapid Test & Trace and The Canadian Shield, as recently recommended by health expert Sabina Vohra-Miller on Twitter.

Provinces expand access to free COVID-19 rapid testing kits

Here’s everything you need to know about rapid tests, and where to get your hands on them across the country.

What is a rapid antigen test?

There are two main types of COVID-19 tests: the PCR test and the rapid antigen test.

The PCR, or polymerase chain reaction test, is a lab-based method that uses a deep nasal swab to determine if the coronavirus is present. It’s considered the “gold standard” of COVID-19 tests, providing accurate results about 98 per cent of the time. However, getting results back usually takes about 24 hours and the test must be performed by trained technicians.

In contrast, the rapid antigen test can provide results within 15 minutes. The device used for testing is relatively easy to use but provides less-accurate results. Getting accurate results depends on a number of factors; but the rapid tests provide a correct result between 50 to 95 per cent of the time. The variability in accuracy means individuals can test negative while being actively infected.

How accurate are rapid tests?

Rapid tests have an accuracy rate from 50 to 95 per cent. Tests are usually more accurate in people who have symptoms, since a fairly high concentration of the virus is needed to produce a positive finding with the antigen test. If you have COVID-19 symptoms, or you have been exposed to an infected person, you should get a more reliable PCR test to confirm a diagnosis.

Nitin Mohan, an epidemiologist and assistant professor at Western University, said that when they are used properly, rapid tests can help curb the spread of COVID-19. Dr. Mohan said someone who is symptomatic and obtains a negative result on a rapid test should try to get a PCR test and isolate if they cannot.

“This may not be a perfect solution, but it’s something,” he said. “I think that when layered with other precautions, it would be effective.”

Which rapid tests are approved for use in Canada?

Canada has approved nearly 100 types of rapid antigen tests and PCR tests. The full list of authorized tests is on the federal government website and is updated daily.

How many rapid tests has Canada purchased so far?

Canada has purchased more than 94 million units of rapid tests, including those from Abbott Panbio, Abbott ID Now, BD Veritor, Quidel Sofia, BTNX, Roche, Quidel QuickVue and Lucira.

According to CTV, 86 million of those tests have been sent to provinces and territories. In December, an additional 35 million were delivered, and that number will quadruple in January.

Ottawa to send 140 million COVID-19 rapid tests to provinces, territories as Omicron cases rise across the country

On Jan. 5, Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos said the federal government will send an additional 140 million COVID-19 rapid tests across Canada in January. Deliveries are already underway, with the following number of tests to be allocated per province and territory:

Ontario: 54,320,000

Quebec: 31,500,000

British Columbia: 19,180,000

Alberta: 16,240,000

Manitoba: 5,040,000

Saskatchewan: 4,340,000

Nova Scotia: 3,640,000

New Brunswick: 2,940,000

Newfoundland and Labrador: 1,960,000

Prince Edward Island: 560,000

Nunavut, Northwest Territories, Yukon: 140,000 each

Is rapid antigen COVID-19 testing free in Canada?

The federal government, some provincial and territorial governments, and distribution partners, such as pharmacies, chambers of commerce and the Canadian Red Cross, are providing free rapid tests to companies for workplace screening.

New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Saskatchewan have all offered rapid testing kits free to the public. Soon, residents in Alberta and Quebec will have access to them from pharmacies. But in B.C., where some regions have seen an uptick of COVID cases including Omicron infections, rapid antigen tests have only been distributed in selected sectors such as long-term care homes, correctional facilities and some businesses.

Companies with more than 200 or more employees are being given priority for tests, but organizations of all sizes can request tests. Companies can request free rapid tests through the federal government’s website. Small- to medium-sized companies in Alberta, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Ontario can access free rapid tests through participating pharmacies.

For individuals who are looking for tests, Canada has a patchwork system of free and paid tests – where you fall on that depends on your home province.

How (and where) can you get access to a rapid test?

Saskatchewan will offer rapid testing kits free to the public without symptoms, but access in other provinces varies.

On Jan. 5, New Brunswick announced it would begin restricting access to rapid tests after pronounced shortages. People now must register online and book an appointment to pick up a rapid-test kit at a local assessment centre.

Meanwhile, lab-based PCR tests in the province will be reserved for symptomatic people at the highest risk of being hospitalized owing to COVID-19, including health care workers, those who live or work in long-term care facilities, homeless shelters and correctional facilities, and those who are over 50, pregnant or immunocompromised.

In Nova Scotia, rapid tests will be distributed at testing centres, workplaces and libraries.

As of Feb. 9, Ontario is distributing millions of free rapid-antigen COVID-19 tests to the general public at participating pharmacies and grocery stores. The kits will be available at 2,300 locations across the province, either through pickup or online ordering, starting on Wednesday. The plan is currently set to last at least eight weeks, through February and March, as Ontario gradually reopens. The full list of participating grocery stores and pharmacies is located on the government’s website.

While the province says it has so far distributed 55 million rapid tests – including 11 million through schools – it has faced criticism from people who lined up for hours to get tests for free or had to buy them online. The government plans to distribute more rapid tests for asymptomatic people at pop-up centres in malls and transit hubs. Anyone who has not received a test through those channels needs to pay for them online or through a drugstore where the cost is about $40 a test.

Rapid antigen tests are not available in stores in British Columbia, and have only been distributed by the province in some select environments, such as long-term care facilities.

In Alberta, Premier Jason Kenney announced that students and staff will be the priority for 10 million new rapid COVID-19 test kits that are set to arrive in the coming weeks. As of Dec. 17, more than 500,000 rapid antigen test kits were made available for free at select health-care sites and pharmacies.

Employers and service providers can apply to receive free rapid tests to use in their workplaces, prioritizing businesses that work with vulnerable populations, in high-risk settings, offer essential services and sectors that support reopening of economic and social activities. The province has also distributed tests to parents in schools where there have been outbreaks. Anyone who has not received a test through these channels can get a test at pharmacies including Shoppers Drug Mart.

On Dec. 20, Quebec said it will make rapid COVID-19 tests available to the entire population. Daniel Paré, the head of the province’s vaccination campaign, said every resident will be able to receive five self-tests a month for free. The tests were distributed through 1,900 pharmacies, but supplies quickly ran out.

Quebec will receive 31.5 million rapid tests of the incoming 140 million allotted to provinces and territories across Canada. The province’s health ministry spokesperson Marjorie Larouche said the rapid tests should be distributed shortly to pharmacies, where people will be able to get them.

In Manitoba, teachers, educational support staff, and individuals who work in licensed child-care centres and nursery schools are able to get a rapid test at Fast Pass sites, which are testing locations specifically for these essential workers. Individuals can also pay for a rapid test at pharmacies across the province.

Health officials also said most people who go to provincial testing sites will now be given rapid antigen tests to take home instead of a PCR test. There will be exceptions for some people such as hospitalized patients and people with weakened immune systems who show symptoms.

On Prince Edward Island, rapid antigen tests are available for those who are not fully vaccinated and work in long-term or community care, front-line public service workers, and for children who either have mild symptoms or who do not have symptoms but have travelled off the Island. The province is also giving rapid tests to incoming travellers.

This year, Newfoundland and Labrador had pop-up rapid antigen testing clinics for asymptomatic people. The provincial government recommends that individuals book COVID-19 tests through the province’s website, but individuals can pay for a rapid test at some pharmacies, as well as other health care service providers. The costs range from $60 to $70, plus an administrative fee and HST. Every traveller 5 and older arriving in the province will also get rapid-test kits, which will also be distributed at clinics.

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