SASKATOON — Saskatchewan underestimated how many rapid antigen tests were needed during the height of the fourth wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, while also touting the tests as a key part of its plan to halt transmission of the virus, internal emails indicate.
Documents obtained under freedom of information laws show the province emailing Health Canada in September and October 2021 asking for millions more tests than were originally requested.
“Our warehouse has just confirmed that they have shipped over half of the 500,000 tests that were received last week, and orders for test kits are coming in faster than anticipated from all corners of the province,” said an email from the province on Sept. 20.
The 120 pages of emails that are partially redacted show correspondence between Health Canada staff and Saskatchewan government and health authority employees regarding COVID-19 assistance in late 2021 as the province faced surging infections, hospitalizations and pressures on intensive care units. All names of provincial employees have been redacted.
Saskatchewan’s Ministry of Health says the province anticipated strong public demand for rapid antigen test kits, and took measures as early as May 2021 for them to be used by individuals for self-testing.
“As a sufficient supply of tests was secured from the federal government, the province opened wider public distribution channels, eventually resulting in over 600 locations where the public could access tests,” the ministry said in a statement.
The province said as of last Friday, Saskatchewan has distributed over 25 million rapid tests, including 11.8 million tests directly to the public.
At the start of September, provincial health authority staff initially emailed Health Canada saying one million tests would be sufficient for at least two months — and suggested to Ottawa the province could receive them in biweekly batches of 250,000.
Saskatchewan had just announced an at-home testing pilot for students under the age of 12, along with their families. Emails show there was also increasing demand for workplace screening across the province.
A little more than a week later, the authority emailed Health Canada to say its warehouse was empty and requested a scheduled delivery of tests be expedited.
“With your warehouse out of supplies, does that change your demand of 500,000 tests in September and 500,000 in October?” Sebastien Poirier with Health Canada asked in an email on Sept. 11.
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The province reassured the federal department its original order was enough.
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“The total of (one) million tests arriving in September and October is forecast to meet our needs,” said an email from the province on Sept. 12.
The next day the province issued a new provincial emergency order. A week later, emails showed, it became clear that number of rapid tests would not be enough.
The province requested an additional one million tests for October — on top of the 500,000 it had already ordered. The federal department responded in an email that it was “juggling a few urgent requests” and had limited inventory.
Saskatchewan was reporting record-high numbers of people in hospital from the wave fuelled by the Delta COVID-19 variant and front-line health-care workers were voicing their concern that it would get worse. Surgeries and tests were being cancelled and staff were redeployed to COVID-19 wards.
Parents were posting on social media how there weren’t enough tests for the at-home testing pilot for students. The Saskatchewan Teachers’ Federation issued a public call for the government to improve measures to help keep children from getting COVID-19.
By the end of September, Saskatchewan asked for two million tests for the next month. That bumped up even more in October.
“If 3.5 (million) is available, we would take them. Just wanted to make sure that this request is in addition to what we have requested for the October allocation,” an email from the province said.
At that time, Saskatchewan was also urging universities and businesses with more than 200 employees to contact the federal government for a program that distributed COVID-19 screening kits.
Emails show that Health Canada employees usually redirected educational institutions back to provinces to get the COVID-19 tests and it was worried about what Saskatchewan’s demands would do to the overall supply.
“In my view, with the public health situation in (Saskatchewan), we should assist,” wrote Angie Barrados, with Health Canada, in a Sept. 28 email.
Saskatchewan Health Minister Paul Merriman had declined federal support at the end of September as COVID-19 pressures mounted on the province. The federal government was caught off guard when Merriman requested urgent help only a few weeks later.
Demand for the rapid test kits came from across Canada and some leaders criticized the federal government for a lack of supply. Without an abundance of tests, provinces and territories were rolling out different plans for distribution, most erring on the side of caution that there may not be much access to tests.
Emails showed Health Canada was sharing information with Saskatchewan about upcoming test procurements and the possibilities to support that province.
By mid-October, Saskatchewan was preparing to hand out 1.3 million rapid self-test kits to the public at fire halls, local chambers of commerce and health authority testing centres.
“Starting the week of Oct. 18, Saskatchewan households will be able to take home a COVID-19 rapid antigen test kit to support asymptomatic testing,” Premier Scott Moe posted on social media.
Access was expanded further in November and they were available to libraries and Co-op grocery stores.
Saskatchewan has received a total of 31,760,783 rapid tests from the federal government as of Jan. 25.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 8, 2023.