Premier Doug Ford defends current approach amid calls for more rapid COVID test access

Click to play video: 'Should rapid COVID tests be free in Ontario?'
Should rapid COVID tests be free in Ontario?
WATCH ABOVE: The Ford government is under fire for not doing more to make rapid antigen tests more accessible and free. Many experts say the tests will improve effective screening protocols and could be a means to protecting the health of residents. Matthew Bingley reports. – Dec 8, 2021

Ontario’s premier defended the province’s approach to COVID-19 testing on Wednesday as calls grew for expanded access to rapid tests ahead of the holiday season.

Some Ontario workplaces offer rapid tests for their employees, and children in publicly funded schools are being sent home for the December break with a kit of five rapid tests each.

But for the most part, the tests that offer results within around 15 minutes are not freely available to people who simply want to rule out an asymptomatic COVID-19 infection before a holiday gathering, for example.

When asked why rapid tests aren’t free for all Ontarians, Ford pointed to the 33 million rapid tests already distributed by his government and referenced other testing initiatives like the free five tests for students.

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“We’re covering the gamut of making sure that people have the test,” Ford said in Westwood, Ont., a hamlet 25 km east of Peterborough, on Wednesday.

Click to play video: 'Calls to release at-home COVID-19 rapid tests widely in Ontario'
Calls to release at-home COVID-19 rapid tests widely in Ontario

“We have a plan, it’s a strong plan, and we’re going to make sure that we continue implementing that pandemic plan.”

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His comments echo those made by Health Minister Christine Elliott throughout the week. Elliott said Tuesday that people who are eligible because they have symptoms or have been exposed to the virus can access free tests, and she argued it’s fair to ask people to pay for tests before travel.

Ontario offers free PCR testing to those with COVID-19 symptoms, close contacts of a case and members of certain groups. Those tests are available at assessment centres and pharmacies, among other locations, and the province says most results are ready in 48 hours.

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In addition to the programs providing rapid tests for free to businesses and schools, they can be accessed for a fee at pharmacies for travel or other asymptomatic uses. Results are ready in about 15 minutes.

But critics have argued that greater access to rapid tests for asymptomatic people would be a valuable tool in fighting off a growing wave of virus infections, and would offer peace of mind for people hoping to visit friends and family over the December holidays.

Ontario’s group of expert pandemic advisers is planning to release recommendations on rapid testing this week. The scientific director of the group told The Canadian Press that it would make sense to use the tests more often and make them more available to people.

In the legislature on Wednesday, Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath raised concerns about stark new projections on the disease from the science advisory table, and questioned why the Progressive Conservative government isn’t offering free rapid tests free to help address the situation.

Elliott responded that the tests are being deployed at some schools, workplaces, hospitals and congregant care settings.

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But Horwath said those comments “miss the point.” The cost of asymptomatic rapid tests is a barrier for some people, she said after question period, and said offering free asymptomatic tests would allow more people to make holiday plans “secure in their knowledge that they don’t have the virus.”

“That really does create a level of, I think, safety for folks as they go about their business, particularly as we head into the holidays,” she said. “Those rapid tests are an important tool. We should be using them.”

Click to play video: 'Ontario’s COVID-19 Science Advisory Table to release recommendations on rapid tests'
Ontario’s COVID-19 Science Advisory Table to release recommendations on rapid tests

A spokeswoman for Elliott said this week that the province has distributed more than 33 million rapid antigen tests and has 5.75 tests in inventory.

The debate over rapid tests comes as COVID-19 cases rise in the province. Ontario reported 1,009 new cases Wednesday, pushing the seven-day average over 1,000 for the first time since June 1, as the third wave was subsiding.

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Experts say the arrival of the Omicron variant in Ontario could worsen the trajectory of the province’s daily case counts.

At least 31 cases of the new variant have been recorded so far in Ontario. The Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit announced Wednesday that it is investigating a household cluster of seven COVID-19 cases that have a “strong probability” of being Omicron. The cluster is linked to people who travelled to the region from Nigeria in November.

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