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Ontarians scramble to get free rapid antigen tests in provincial holiday test blitz


Ontarians took to malls and other pop-up sites Thursday in a scramble to secure free rapid antigen test kits after the provincial government launched its holiday testing blitz. 

The mad dash of people flocking to pop-up locations in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area was reminiscent of the early-pandemic hunt for toilet paper. This time, however, the search was on for free rapid antigen test kits, which, until this week, were largely not accessible for free outside of some workplaces and schools.

Dan Jelly said he went to a pop-up site in Hamilton, Ont., shortly after it opened at 9 a.m. to pick up some tests. He said he lined up with a few hundred others for rapid tests outside the Dundurn Castle landmark, but was told they ran out in less than half an hour.

“Someone came out and said there are no more boosters and there are no more tests and that people had been in line since 6 a.m.,” said Jelly. 

As someone who plans to spend the holidays with his extended family, Jelly said he wanted to get a rapid test kit “to make sure that we were safe.” 

“It's very frustrating. It's amateurish,” he said. 

“It's 2021 and we're having people show up in parking lots, in parks, apparently at 6 a.m. in order to get service for things. That's not fair. And I have a privilege of being able to get there, (but) there are a lot of people who wouldn't even bother trying because they clearly wouldn't be able to get there, and that's not fair to people.” 

Jelly said he’ll try again to get rapid test kits if there are “other days and opportunities” to do so, but that he’s “losing hope in our government at this point.” 

On her way to work Thursday morning, Jacqueline Vincent said she passed by a swarm of people outside of the Richmond-Adelaide Centre pop-up site in downtown Toronto. 

Vincent said it looked like there were several hundred people in line at the centre trying to secure some rapid tests, and that one person was set up at a table handing single boxes out. 

“I will receive tests from my employer but I kind of wanted to see what the lay of the land was. And it was not great,” she said. 

“I think it would be ideal if it could be a much more efficient process, so people did not have to spend a long period of time in a crowded public place.” 

In Ottawa, Ryan Wright, who wanted to secure rapid tests in time for his mother-in-law’s visit for Christmas, questioned why the provincial government decided to distribute the rapid tests mostly in the GTA, when other regions are also seeing high COVID-19 case counts. 

“To be honest, I don't really understand it,” he said of the province’s holiday testing blitz strategy. 

“It seems to be very Toronto centric and Ontario is a massive province with well over … 14 million people.” 

Wright added that the scramble for rapid tests “proves just how desperate we are to try and keep ourselves, our friends and our families safe.”

Also on Thursday, five organizations released a joint statement in support of school boards providing teachers and education workers with rapid tests.

The Canadian Union of Public Employees, Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario, Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association, Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation and Association des enseignantes et des enseignants franco-ontariens said “everyone in all school environments” should have “equal access” to rapid tests.

"It is the responsibility of school boards and the provincial government to facilitate all COVID-19 prevention efforts to ensure test availability, including rapid testing," they added. 

The Toronto District School Board has said it’s working with three local hospitals to support schools with COVID-19 testing that is “non-invasive, faster, easier and promotes equity of access” in the event of outbreaks, exposures or when students and staff have COVID-19 symptoms.

Ontario's Ministry of Health said people can visit the government's website to find out if pop-up rapid antigen screening sites become available in their area. 

"Additional pop-ups, including participating LCBO locations, will be added to the website upon confirmation by individual locations," the ministry said in a statement. 

The health ministry noted that it recognizes the "significant demand for rapid tests" in the face of the fast-spreading Omicron variant and that it's "pleased to see so many people embrace the opportunity to add an extra layer of protection in advance of the holidays." 

"That said, Ontario has a limited supply of rapid tests and every single test the province has received from the federal government is on its way out the door to thousands of workplaces, hospitals, home and community care settings, long-term care homes, schools and child care centres on top of the many pop-up sites across the province," it said.  

Premier Doug Ford has said the province is continuing to urge the federal government to make more rapid tests available as quickly as possible. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 16, 2021. 


This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship. 

Noushin Ziafati, The Canadian Press

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