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The hottest holiday item this year? A COVID-19 rapid antigen test kit


Hunt for COVID-19 rapid test kits sparks ‘Hunger Games’ in rocky rollout of government distribution

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The Ontario government’s first free COVID-19 test kit distribution in Hamilton was from a mobile vaccination bus Thursday parked outside an historical site, advertised to stretch from 9 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. — but all the kits were gone within minutes.

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The lineup had started at 6 a.m.

People complained only 100 kits were available while several hundred people continued to arrive, jamming streets and sidewalks around Dundurn Castle on the city’s waterfront.

Jan Heastont drove 60 kilometres from rural Fisherville, Ont., to the site, but just getting near it was hard because of traffic congestion, people parking haphazardly, and drivers stopping to let passengers off to run to the growing lineup.

She turned around without getting out.

“There was a backlog of traffic as soon as I turned from Main Street,” she said. “Frankly, I was worried about the number of people who were there.”

At Toronto’s Yorkdale Mall, one of several Toronto area pop-up distribution locations, a long line for test kits snaked through the shopping concourse, where security directed bewildered people arriving to pick up a kit to where the end of the line really was. They too ran out shortly after opening.

“Hunger Games,” sniped one failed seeker.

That was a popular metaphor Thursday in Ontario as the hunt began for test kits in the province’s rocky rollout, referencing the movie of an enforced contest where children fight to the death until only one survives.

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The frustrating start to the distribution in Toronto and Hamilton, however, were still better than in most communities where there was no distribution at all.

In Ottawa, the province’s test kits have not yet arrived, said Dr. Vera Etches, the city’s medical officer of health.

“We think the first shipment will come on Dec. 21. So that means in about five days we should be able, at 10 sites in Ottawa, make rapid antigen tests available to people,” Etches said.

Dr. Dalia Hasan, founder of COVID Test Finders, a social media effort to help people get a testing kit, said its good kits are finally being released, but it was an inauspicious start.

“There is an inequitable accessibility to rapid tests that needs to be rectified as soon as possible. Ontario is much bigger than Toronto and surrounding cities,” Hasan said.

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“We need to be able to get rapid tests into the hands of every Ontario resident, given that the Omicron variant is here. The demand is clearly there. People are lining up by the hundreds. People are wanting to protect themselves and their loved ones.

“Human lives are at stake. This isn’t a marketing opportunity for malls and businesses, this is a public health measure that needs to be put in public health settings.”

The name of the test kits being distributed — rapid antigen tests or RAT — led to the hashtag #FreeTheRATs trending on social media Thursday.

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“#FreeTheRATs beyond one hour of supply,” tweeted COVID Test Finders. “What’s spreading faster? The C19 virus, or the number of people who need Rapid Antigen Tests? Only the data will tell.”

Ontario’s Ministry of Health wouldn’t say how many test kits were distributed Thursday or how many were at each distribution site. The ministry said the province “has a limited supply” of test kits.

“In the face of the rapidly-spreading Omicron variant, we recognize that there is significant demand for rapid tests and are pleased to see so many people embrace the opportunity to add an extra layer of protection in advance of the holidays,” Anna Miller, a health ministry spokeswoman said.

“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 childcare centres on top of the many pop-up sites across the province.”

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Miller said the province is trying to buy kits and is urging the federal government to provide more kits to the provinces.

The distribution of free test kits begins Friday in Alberta.

The province plans to distribute them on a first-come, first-serve basis from about 600 pharmacies in Calgary, Edmonton and Red Deer, and at 140 Alberta Health Services clinics in smaller communities.

There are more than 500,000 kits, said Alberta Premier Jason Kenney.

“This is especially welcome at this time of year, as we know more Albertans will be mixing and mingling throughout the Christmas season and often travelling, for example, from cities to hometowns,” Kenney said.

Quebec is set to begin distributing free test kits through pharmacies next week. Pharmacists are warning the rollout may be uneven at the start.

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“Tests will be distributed as we receive them, but they may not be available at all pharmacies in the first days of deployment,” said Benoit Morin, president of the pharmacists’ association.

Nova Scotia, Saskatchewan and New Brunswick have already been distributing test kits and receiving praise from other parts of the country.

Nova Scotia, Hasan said, “is a beacon of light on early distribution.”

Increased demand means dwindling supply, however.

In Halifax, where they are distributed through the public libraries, they ran out of kits at all branches Thursday. Restocking was underway, with distribution expected to resume Friday, Halifax Public Libraries said.

Test kits are available for purchase in some stores, although they are not often easy to find and some companies are limiting who they sell to.

They range from $8.75 to $40 at various pharmacies and retail stores, according to COVID Test Finders. Some manufactures offer to sell boxes of kits directly to businesses for employee testing.

As is the way, the scarcity of the tests has pushed some into the black market.

“Because these resources are so scarce people are taking advantage of this and hoarding rapid tests and selling them at obscene prices online,” said Hasan.

• Email: ahumphreys@postmedia.com | Twitter:

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