Skip to main content

Minister of Health Jean-Yves Duclos speaks during an update on the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic in Ottawa, on Dec. 10, 2021.Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

The federal government is sending an additional 140 million rapid antigen tests to the provinces and territories as the country faces growing COVID-19 cases driven by the highly transmissible Omicron variant.

Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos, who made the announcement in Ottawa on Wednesday during a pandemic update alongside Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, said the tests will be allocated on a per-capita basis as requested by the provincial and territorial governments. Deliveries are already under way, he added.

Rapid tests are becoming increasingly popular as a way to detect COVID-19, particularly because rising case numbers have made polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests more difficult to access. Rapid tests are not as effective as PCR tests, and some scientists question how good they are at picking up the Omicron variant in particular.

Nitin Mohan, an epidemiologist and assistant professor at Western University, said on Wednesday 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.

Rapid tests will help keep people as safe as possible, he added.

“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.”

Mr. Trudeau said on Wednesday that rapid testing is “another tool in the toolbox” for the fight against COVID-19, especially given the speed at which the Omicron variant of the virus is moving through communities.

Asked whether the arrival of more rapid tests would ease the scramble for them, particularly in Ontario and Quebec, Mr. Trudeau said the provinces are responsible for distribution. Mr. Duclos’s office did not say how much it paid for the rapid tests.

“Our job is to procure as many as we possibly can and get them to the provinces, free of charge,” Mr. Trudeau said.

Mr. Duclos said that before December, 2021, the federal government delivered 85 million tests to provinces and territories. Last month alone, he said, an additional 35 million were delivered, and that number will quadruple this month.

He said 140 million tests amounts to about one rapid test a week for each person in Canada. Quebec will receive 31.5 million, Mr. Duclos added, but he did not say how many other provinces and territories can expect. Quebec reported 14,486 new lab-confirmed cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday – the highest of any province or territory in Canada.

Throughout the pandemic, the federal government has emphasized it sees its role as being in charge of the border, financial supports for individuals and businesses, and the procurement of vaccines and resources such as rapid tests.

Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole said on Facebook on Wednesday that most Canadians have not been able to get their hands on a rapid test and pointed to a preholiday scramble for them.

Alexandra Hilkene, a spokeswoman for Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliott, said the province has not been able to finalize its distribution plans for the new tests as it has not yet received a delivery schedule from Ottawa. Ms. Hilkene also said Ontario has still not received 12 million of 15.5 million tests the federal government had promised for December. She said Ontario, which has procured millions of rapid tests on its own, intended to use the new ones from Ottawa in “settings like hospitals, home and community care, long-term care and retirement homes, as well as child care centres and schools, so they can continue operating safely.” (The province announced on Monday it was shutting its schools for at least two weeks.)

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. Ontario Opposition NDP Leader Andrea Horwath called the province’s rapid-test distribution a shambles, but would not say how she would use the new tests. “I have no confidence whatsoever that [Premier] Doug Ford has even got a plan for how to distribute those tests,” Ms. Horwath said. “Let’s face it, right now finding a rapid test in Ontario is like a Where’s Waldo exercise.”

Quebec Health Ministry spokesperson Marjorie Larouche said the rapid tests should be distributed shortly to pharmacies, where people will be able to get them. Before Christmas, the provincial government allotted five free rapid tests for every person 14 years and up, given out through pharmacies, but supplies quickly ran out.

New Brunswick announced on Wednesday 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.

Lab-based PCR tests in that 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. In Newfoundland and Labrador, every traveller 5 and older arriving in the province will get COVID-19 rapid-test kits, which will also be distributed at clinics.

Prince Edward Island is also giving rapid tests to incoming travellers, and prioritizing distribution of the rest to front-line staff who are not fully vaccinated and work in high risk areas, people who work in long-term care and children returning to in-class learning.

With reports from Jeff Gray in Toronto, Greg Mercer in Saint John and Eric Andrew-Gee in Montreal

For subscribers only: Get exclusive political news and analysis by signing up for the Politics Briefing.