A petition is circulating online by a Toronto-area ICU nurse calling on Ontario Premier Doug Ford to provide free COVID-19 rapid antigen tests to every household in the province.
Thousands have signed the petition, which notes, “The Omicron variant is here now, and COVID-19 cases are rising by the day. Research shows that rapid antigen tests are instrumental in preventing asymptomatic spread of COVID-19 as they provide quick and reliable results. This is why they need to be made available to every Ontarian.”
Also gaining momentum online is #FreeTheRATs, an acronym for rapid antigen tests.
“We’re currently woefully underutilizing testing” said Dr. Dalia Hasan, physician and founder of COVID-19 Test Finders.
“Not taking advantage of this critical public health tool is quite frankly an unforced error,” she added.
Her goal, she explained, is to disseminate information on how to access free rapid tests for personal or business use.
“They help reduce outbreaks and unnecessary quarantine, they reduce morbidity and mortality and at the end of the day public health is about saving lives and preventing the transmission of disease and simply put, ramping up the availability of free at-home rapid tests would save lives,” said Hasan.
Hasan said there is a need for every household in the province to have access to the tests and for every student.
“Given how many outbreaks we’re seeing in schools right now, especially with Omicron looming over us, it’s already affecting schools in London … it’s imperative we get these rapid tests into schools to protect our vulnerable populations,” she said.
Rapid tests are currently offered for free to businesses in Ontario and they have been distributed in schools in areas of high transmission. The government has also said it plans to send all school children home with five rapid tests over the December holidays.
But aside from that, rapid tests have not been made available to anyone else free of charge.
In Toronto’s east end, a group of concerned parents hatched a plan to create a COVID-19 rapid testing program at their children’s school in September but the test supply is now dwindling and the parents are looking to the province for support.
“It’s really frustrating that we know that these tests are in Ontario somewhere … but we can’t access them,” said Betty Zou, parent and organizer with the initiative Earl Beatty Community Asymptomatic Testing.
Her team is considering fundraising to be able to afford to purchase tests, which sell for $40 apiece at Shoppers Drug Mart, but Zou acknowledged not every parent community could afford that.
“There’s lot of other schools where there are outbreaks right now in high-risk communities where this isn’t even an option, so there’s a huge equity piece to this as well and it’s just really frustrating that we’re needing to pay out of pocket for tests that have already been purchased for the Canadian citizens to use,” said Zou.
At Queen’s Park, Health Minister Christine Elliott maintained the testing is widely available and accessible to Ontarians.
“We are making them very widely available both in terms of when you can get tested and places where you can be tested that’s why we brought forward the pharmacies to be able to do some of this testing for symptomatic and asymptomatic … recognizing that as we reopen Ontario there will be more interactions with people, there’s more likelihood for an increase in cases and that’s why we need to have more testing,” she said.
Critical care physician Dr. Brooks Fallis pointed out public health tools should be used “freely to make events that you’re attending safer.”
Fallis said now is the time for the Ford government to be proactive “with some new good decisions.”
“It always feels in Ontario like there has to be this big public outcry — media reports and people yelling and screaming in order to get anything done,” he said.
Fallis would like to see education on airborne transmission, the community flooded with rapid tests and an improvement in the quality of the masks people are wearing.
“The government needs to subsidize high quality masks … in addition, rapid tests falls under the same category. If everybody is wearing better masks and everybody is rapid testing prior to their social engagements where they’re not going to wear a mask we would significantly reduce unexpected transmission in our communities,” he said.
Ontario’s COVID-19 Science Advisory Table said the group plans to publish a science brief on the topic of rapid testing in the coming days, including new recommendations.