Ottawa to cut rapid COVID-19 test shipments to provinces, territories by year’s end

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Canadian provinces and territories will stop receiving shipments of COVID-19 rapid tests by the end of the year, the Public Health Agency of Canada says.

With COVID-19 activity dropping in several parts of the country, PHAC said its response to the novel coronavirus is entering a new phase.

“As we approach the next phase of our COVID-19 response, we will continue to support provinces and territories by providing rapid tests until December 2022,” a spokesperson for the agency told Global News in an email.

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Though it is halting shipments, PHAC said Ottawa will maintain a strategic reserve of 100 million rapid tests. Fifty million will be earmarked for the provinces and territories and the other 50 million will be held to address “general surge requirements,” the agency added.

“The Government of Canada will continue to take orders for rapid tests for direct distribution to organizations of 200 or more employees until July 29, 2022, and from pharmacy partners until September 2022 for their distribution to small and medium-sized businesses,” the spokesperson for the agency said.

“We will also continue to provide rapid test kits to the Canadian Red Cross (CRC) for distribution to the people it serves through CRC charities, non-profit organizations and community partners. In addition, we will continue to provide rapid tests to Northern, Remote and Isolated communities as part of its continued commitment to supporting populations that may have limited access to these resources.”

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The spokesperson added Ottawa will continue to monitor and adjust to the evolving science around COVID-19, including the role and timing of testing and screening.

“As such, this decision will be reassessed before the end of 2022.”

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Ottawa has been providing rapid tests to the provinces and territories since October 2020, and faced pressure to up those shipments when testing demands increased.

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Many Canadians became reliant on those tests, which generally provide results within 15 minutes, as restrictions were placed on PCR testing, which is considered the gold standard of COVID-19 testing, due to surging demand earlier this year.

The decision to maintain a national stockpile of rapid tests comes after Auditor General Karen Hogan said last year that PHAC wasn’t ready to meet the surge in demand for personal protective equipment when COVID-19 began in 2020.

PHAC had ignored years of warnings that the national emergency stockpile of medical supplies wasn’t being properly managed, Hogan said in her report.

At the time when the report was published in May 2021, Ottawa had spent more than $7 billion on medical devices and protective equipment since the pandemic started.

However, Hogan’s team selected four items to study for the purpose of the audit: N95 masks, ventilators, surgical gowns and testing swabs.

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The team found that Ottawa was eventually able to help provinces and territories get the equipment they needed to respond to the pandemic, but it took weeks to get there and a substantial overhaul of government policies, including bulk purchasing supplies and faster licensing for new suppliers.

The federal government vowed at the time to ensure Canada would be better prepared for future health emergencies.

Rapid tests can still play a role in limiting COVID-19 spread, but personal protections like masking are important measures everyone can take to stay protected, said Dr. Theresa Tam, chief public health officer of Canada.

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“Rapid tests can potentially change people’s behaviour if they do get a positive test, although as we all know a negative test doesn’t mean you don’t have it, and that those other measures would also be extremely important to continue,” she said during a news conference on Friday.

“At this stage in the pandemic, some of the roles and responsibilities are reverting back to the provincial jurisdictions.”

— with files from The Canadian Press

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