Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos made the announcement Wednesday at an official update on the state of COVID-19 in Canada — the first of the new year.
“As requested by our provincial and territorial colleagues, these tests will be allocated … on a per capita basis,” Duclos said.
“Deliveries are already well underway and we will keep you updated as often as possible.”
Rapid COVID-19 antigen tests have been hard to find since Omicron arrived in the country last month.
In an effort to limit the virus’ spread – particularly ahead of the 2021 holiday season – provincial governments made rapid tests more accessible to Canadians. Millions of people snapped them up when they could, some standing in hours-long lines at shopping malls and liquor stores.
But the demand quickly outweighed the supply, and the federal government has been under pressure to increase rapid test supply ever since. The Ontario government has pressured Ottawa to increase supply to meet the demand.
Duclos said 120 million rapid tests have been distributed to date in Canada, with 85 million before December 2021 and 35 million in December.
“Across Canada, all levels of government are doing their best to help slow the spread of this virus and support Canadians,” he said.
“These are challenging times, but they will not last forever. We have the tools we need to get through this new wave of the pandemic. Let’s continue to exercise caution.”
Canada’s Omicron surge continues
Omicron has been driving up COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations across Canada since its introduction in the country last month.
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On Wednesday, Canada reported 37,410 new cases and 57 deaths. However, a number of provinces have restricted COVID-19 PCR testing due to overwhelming demand, so the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) warns daily case counts will under estimate the total burden of disease.
Many provinces and territories have imposed restrictions to limit the spread of Omicron, and to protect hospitals from overflowing with COVID-19 patients. As of Dec. 27, 1,830 COVID-19 patients were reported in Canadian hospitals, and 480 of them were in intensive care units, according to national data.
Ontario joined provinces clamping down on activities Wednesday, closing gyms, banning indoor dining and restricting gathering limits further until Jan. 26. Students are also learning online until Jan. 17, so long as the pandemic doesn’t worsen.
Ontario health officials also said the province is also delaying all non-urgent surgeries as it struggles with the dual pressures of rising admissions and increased staff absences.
While fewer people are experiencing COVID-19 pneumonia from Omicron, many are being hospitalized for short stays or with chronic illnesses worsened by a COVID-19 infection, Chris Simpson of Ontario Health told The Canadian Press on Tuesday.
Ontario has also changed its guidance around who can get a PCR test, restricting it to those who are symptomatic and hospitalized. In addition, those who test positive on a rapid antigen test will no longer need to confirm they have COVID-19 through a PCR test.
A similar dire situation is playing out in Quebec, where cases reached 14,494 on Tuesday, and hospitalizations hit 1,592. In response, the government introduced a curfew in addition to other measures to calm record infection numbers in the province.
In Quebec, PCR testing is reserved for high-risk populations like health-care workers who have contact with patients, Indigenous communities, people experiencing homelessness, and all residents, staff and caregivers who enter care homes, group homes, prisons, shelters and hospitals.
Even if these people are asymptomatic, the government says they will have access to priority PCR testing. The rest of the general population can use rapid antigen tests at home.
For those who have access to rapid testing, Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam said Omicron poses a need for frequent testing “depending on your particular individual situation.”
“The difficulty with this particular virus is just how quickly people may develop the infection, post exposure and things can shift really fast,” Tam said.
“So one just has to remember that if you tested negative in the morning, that doesn’t mean that you may not test negative later on, and if depending on what setting you’re going into, you’re going to have to do very frequent rapid tests depending on your particular individual situation. That’s a challenge with Omicron.”
— with files from Alessia Simona Maratta and The Canadian Press