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In B.C., rapid antigen tests have only been distributed in selected sectors such as long-term care homes, correctional facilities and some businesses.Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press

With COVID-19 cases rising in many parts of the country and holidays around the corner, Alberta is among several provinces making rapid antigen testing kits available to the public. But in B.C., officials say most British Columbians won’t have access to them until the new year.

Some provinces, such as New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Saskatchewan, have 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.

Everything you need to know about rapid tests, and where to get your hands on them across the country

Despite growing calls for B.C. to provide the tests to households, personal-use tests won’t arrive in B.C. until January, Health Minister Adrian Dix said Tuesday.

“We spoke about those as early as November. We’re expecting a supply of these at-home tests to arrive from the federal government in mid- to late-January. We will be taking immediate action. Those will be provided and a plan will be laid out for the use of those tests,” he said at a briefing.

B.C. has mainly received three brands of rapid tests from Ottawa so far: Abbott ID Now; Abbott PanBio; and BD Veritor.

B.C. Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry said some other provinces such as Alberta and Nova Scotia have a type of at-home kit that’s more amenable to distributing to people – the BTNX kits. But the ones B.C. has require a health care provider to administer and a machine.

Mr. Dix would not say which tests British Columbia got from Ottawa, but he said none of the rapid tests available from the federal government are intended for home use. He said “on-label” take-home tests are not yet available, though he did not address why other provinces are offering them for that purpose.

“Our process is informed by the science,” he said.

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In Alberta, the government plans to distribute free rapid tests to the public beginning on Friday. Premier Jason Kenney said the tests will be available at government sites and some pharmacies; people will be limited to a five-pack of tests every two weeks, as long as there is supply.

The province is recommending people test themselves every three days if they are not symptomatic. Anyone with symptoms or who receives a positive result with a rapid antigen test is required to legally isolate and should book a PCR – or polymerase chain reaction – test, Mr. Kenney said.

“These testing kits will provide an extra layer of defence against the virus and will bring piece of mind to families who try to do the right thing to limit transmission to others,” Mr. Kenney told a news conference on Wednesday. “This is especially welcome this time of year, as we know more Albertans will be mixing and mingling throughout the Christmas season and often travelling from cities to hometowns.”

Mr. Kenney has long complained about the level of access to rapid tests in Canada, blaming the federal government for a lack of supply and for not approving more brands of tests, particularly some that are easier to use and widely available in places like Europe. He said he raised those concerns during a call with other premiers and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Tuesday.

Dr. Henry noted there’s a global supply issue with many of these tests.

Health Canada distribution data show, as of Dec. 3, B.C. has received more than 3,200,000 rapid tests, deployed 1,970,000 and only used 314,468. Mr. Dix said 35,000 rapid tests are used every week, and 534,333 tests have been used in total.

The BC Liberal party said the NDP government has failed to use rapid tests and left millions of them in storage.

“Most British Columbians cannot understand, or accept, the unwillingness of the NDP government to use rapid tests as an additional layer of protection throughout the COVID-19 pandemic,” Liberal Leader Shirley Bond said in news release on Wednesday.

“We’ve been calling for increased use of rapid tests for over a year now, and there has been no progress on getting rapid tests in the hands of families during 2021, let alone in time for this holiday season.”

Since March of 2021, the B.C. government has approved the use of rapid antigen testing. Dr. Henry said close to 400 different businesses are using them.

According to Greg D’Avignon, president and CEO of the Business Council of British Columbia, the process to access these tests has been significantly simplified since it was first implemented.

He said that, at the beginning, businesses required a legal agreement with the Provincial Health Services Agency, a medically accredited professional supervising testing and sophisticated reporting in the case of positive tests. This process took multiple months and tens of thousands of dollars to implement, he noted.

However, he added, as of September, after the council partnered with the provincial government to create more accessible routes to rapid testing, businesses no longer need a medical professional on site and video training. He said the process now takes five days to implement and costs $100.

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