Free rapid COVID-19 tests are hard — if not impossible — to come by if you’re a member of the general public in Alberta.
While schools are supplying students and staff with some test kits and rapid tests have been available for high-risk settings and employers for the last several months of 2021, the free rapid test kits for the regular Albertan have run out.
The “where to get test kits” page on the Alberta Health website reads: “Unfortunately, there is no availability for rapid antigen tests at pharmacies in Alberta.”
On Dec. 17, the provincial government in Alberta announced every resident would be able to pick up a free package of five rapid tests every two weeks.
There were long lineups at participating pharmacies that Friday morning, with some running out of supply within a few hours.
However, one province to the east, free rapid tests are still very accessible.
In Saskatchewan, the test kits are still being provided for free at libraries, some grocery stores and gas stations, select chambers of commerce, as well as at vaccination clinics or PCR testing sites.
So, why the discrepancy in availability?
The federal government said it has been providing provinces and territories with hundreds of millions of free rapid tests since October 2020. By the end of 2021, more than 120-million rapid tests were delivered to provinces, the office of the federal minister of health said.
Prior to January, the tests were distributed to provinces and territories to meet their individual requests, the federal government said. Now, “as requested by the provinces and territories, these tests will be available to each jurisdiction, and will be allocated on a per-capita basis.”
According to the federal government, when it comes to rapid test distribution so far, B.C. has received about 5.2 million, Alberta has received 18.8 million (16 million and 1.8 million “currently in development,” according to the province), Saskatchewan has received 16.4 million and Nova Scotia has received 10 million.
That means Nova Scotia has about 10 kits per person, Saskatchewan has nearly 14 kits per person, while Alberta has just over four per person.
Alberta Health Minister Jason Copping said Tuesday that Saskatchewan opened public access to tests earlier than Alberta did.
“We ramped up our rapid-testing program for employers and for organizations to be able to test employees in critical settings and that program was running a number of months last year,” he said.
“We opened up a public program in December of last year.
“Unfortunately, the federal government, as of January, given the increased demands, even though we had backdated orders from December… indicated to us they were going to give it out on a per-population basis.”
That’s when the province decided to buy an additional 10-million rapid tests on its own, Copping said. But there have been challenges with supply chain shortages and shipment delays, he added.
“Saskatchewan ran a public system with public access to tests earlier on than we did, that may explain some of it,” Copping said.
“We started our public program in December (and) asked for additional tests from the federal government. We didn’t receive all of those.
“We have far more tests that will be coming out towards the end of this month.”
The NDP Opposition believes Alberta could have had as many as 25 million more free rapid tests if the UCP government responded to federal procurement offers last fall.
While Saskatchewan leveraged the federal offer to begin procurements before Christmas, Alberta didn’t order additional tests, the NDP said.
Now, the NDP is calling for transparency from the UCP: a breakdown of rapid-test deployment, expected arrival dates for more tests and where they will be allocated.
At least one Edmonton pharmacist agrees the shortage of free rapid tests is likely because the province was slower to respond.
“I believe in Alberta, we were just ordering late. We were not (the) first or second or third province,” said Ghada Hagag, pharmacy manager and owner of All Care Pharmacy.
“It’s inventory. It’s storage… When you’re last in line, you’re going to get whatever is left.”
She said she has patients calling every week asking if the pharmacy has any more tests or any new information.
“We don’t know exactly if we are going to get it again or not,” Hagag said. “We have no exact time for the shipping.
“The new thing now is people are asking if they’re allowed to buy the kit.”
Hagag has also heard of Albertans asking friends and relatives in other provinces to mail rapid tests to them.
“We have families that have sent it by Canada Post. They get some from B.C. and some from Saskatchewan.
“If families can talk, I say to the bigger people, why can’t you talk? It’s the equity.
“I feel their frustration,” she said. “It doesn’t make any sense.”
Hagag is optimistic this shipment delay will be resolved soon, just like the shortages of paper towels, sanitizer and face masks earlier in the pandemic was.
“It’s just a demand and the production rate. I think it’s just a matter of time.”