Canada to end COVID-19 rapid test shipments. Experts say it could be ‘too soon’

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WATCH: The Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) says it is trying to determine the number of Canadians struggling with "long COVID": COVID-19 that lingers long past the initial point of infection, sometimes indefinitely. Chief Public Health Officer of Canada Dr. Theresa Tam said during a news conference Friday that people who are experiencing new or persistent symptoms three to four months after the initial infection could be suffering from long COVID – Jun 3, 2022

COVID-19 rapid tests — a tool that experts consider vital to fighting the pandemic — will not be shipped to Canadian provinces and territories come year’s end, and some fear “it may be too soon” for such a decision.

“Rapid tests are an amazing tool. So if not those, then what,” Colin Furness, infection control epidemiologist and assistant professor at the University of Toronto’s faculty of information, questioned while speaking to Global News Friday.

“It may be too soon. I say [that] may be because I think what’s missing here is a plan. What is our plan for managing this pandemic?”

Having a plan for protecting vulnerable populations, like children under five years of age who cannot yet get vaccinated, is crucial before stopping the shipment of rapid tests, Furness says.

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“One of the reasons we use rapid testing is to protect vulnerable people. If we are going to end rapid testing before that group can be protected, I would call that a travesty of epic proportions,” he said.

Ceasing the shipment of rapid tests will also allow some to believe the COVID-19 pandemic is over when it really isn’t, according to Furness.

“If we’re not testing people and finding positive cases, then there’s no pandemic,” he said. “Those two work hand in glove to essentially enact a reality that is really quite a stark contrast with what is going on in hospitals.”

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As of June 3, newly-confirmed COVID-19 cases have brought the national total to over 3.87 million and more than 41,200 deaths.

Over 3,500 patients are currently in the hospital with COVID-19 in Canada, including more than 230 people in intensive care.

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The country is currently seeing an average of 43 deaths per day.

Some experts also warned against possible stockpiling before shipping is actually terminated.

“I think it’s inevitable that there will be people trying to stockpile,” Kyro Maseh, owner of Lawlor Pharmacy in Toronto, ON, told Global News. “Closer to the date when it’s imminent, you will find people stockpiling.”

Furness agrees.

“Hoarding behaviour is a human instinct in times of uncertainty and fear,” said Furness.

It’s impossible to predict the future of the pandemic, but Maseh wants to know if the federal government has an actual plan.

“I’m going to ask a question to the federal government, which is, do you have a plan in place to provide these tests in a timely fashion? Essentially ramp up the provision of these tests should you require them?” he asked.

Even though Ottawa is stopping shipments, a reserve of 100 million rapid tests will be maintained. Fifty million will be earmarked for the provinces and territories, with the other 50 million held to address “general surge requirements,” according to the Public Health Agency of Canada.

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However, Maseh has his doubts.

“The federal government failed to provide Canadians with rapid tests for about two years into this pandemic and when they did, they ran out,” Maseh said.

“Replaying what happened last December, if the question is, is 50 million tests sufficient for all of Canada, I would personally say no.”

The contents of a COVID-19 antigen rapid test kit are pictured in Calgary, on Jan. 4, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

However, not everyone agrees.

With a limited number of funds for health care, Stephen Hoption Cann, clinical professor at the University of British Columbia’s School of Population and Public Health, believes it is time to end the shipment of rapid tests.

“I think it’s time to move on and move funding priorities elsewhere, especially with this new outbreak of monkeypox,” he said.

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Canada now has 77 confirmed cases of monkeypox, with 71 in Quebec, five in Ontario and one in Alberta.

The disease is transmitted from animals to humans and comes from the same family of viruses that causes smallpox, which was declared to be eradicated in 1980, according to the World Health Organization website.

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Besides monkeypox, Hoption Cann also said another surge of COVID-19 could be possible in the future.

“Just like we’ve seen through the pandemic, these numbers go up and down. There may still be another surge into the fall. Kids go back to school, universities are busy. It’s hard to predict and we don’t know whether a new variant will come out.”

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 Aaron D’Andrea

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