Albertans scrambling to get their hands on free COVID-19 tests

As of Friday, 700 select pharmacies — in Edmonton, Calgary and Red Deer — and 140 Alberta Health Services sites in other communities will have the test kits available.

‘It’s a little step, but a very, very powerful tool when used properly’

The lines were long at some Alberta pharmacies as people lined up for free COVID-19 tests. At Shoppers Drug Mart in Mission, located in southwest Calgary, people braved the cold early. (Megan Grant/CBC)

Rapid COVID-19 test kits are becoming a hot holiday item as Alberta braces for an increase in cases of the Omicron variant.

Select pharmacies and Alberta Health Services sites are now handing out the antigen tests but supplies are limited. 

Many Albertans were already in line for kits Friday morning and sites across the province reported shortages. 

By 9 a.m., Alberta Health Services said its sites in Lethbridge, Medicine Hat, Pincher Creek and Coaldale, had already run out of stock due to "very high demand." 

Mohamed Elfishawi, who owns two Edmonton pharmacies, said people were keen to get their hands on the kits. 

Line-ups at his stores were "crazy huge," Elfishawi said Friday morning.

"We've had tons of calls from people wanting them," he said. "It's going to be a busy day."

Elfishaw said he ordered 1,000 kits for each of his pharmacies but received less than half of what he had requested.

'The hot-ticket item'

"I think it's great that the hot-ticket item is rapid tests," said Sarah Mackey, a volunteer with Vaccine Hunters Alberta.

"It's a positive thing but I wish it didn't come at the cost of more stress for pharmacists and more stress for people lining up." 

Rollout day has been bumpy, Mackey said. She said the volunteer group has heard from pharmacies that some deliveries have yet to arrive.

More than 500,000 rapid antigen test kits will be available but the province is trying to secure a larger supply.

Watch: Albertans brave cold and long lines for free rapid COVID tests

Pharmacies run out of rapid COVID tests minutes after opening

1 year ago
Duration 1:45
Dec. 17 was the first day Albertans could get their free antigen tests. Many lined up early and in frigid weather, but left disappointed as pharmacies ran out in as little as 15 minutes.

In a statement, Alberta Health said it has not had any significant issues with distribution to pharmacies, and roll-out is proceeding as planned.

"Anecdotally, we are pleased to hear that there has been great interest from Albertans in picking up tests," AHS said. 

The kits are being offered on a first-come, first-served basis. Albertans can pick up one box of five tests once every two weeks.

The tests use nasal swabs to detect viral proteins in a biological sample. They can deliver results in under 20 minutes.

They will provide an important layer of protection against the spread of COVID-19 with the Omicron variant threatening to dominate infection rates, said Craig Jenne, an infectious diseases expert at the University of Calgary.

"It's a little step, but a very, very powerful tool when used properly," Jenne said.

"To do a rapid test prior to dinner to ensure that there are no breakthrough infections coming to your Christmas gathering can be a very effective tool in keeping these environments safe."

Premier Jason Kenney said Thursday the tests will allow more Albertans to gather together safely during the holiday season.

A quick nostril swirl

Intended for people who are symptom-free, the tests can be used by people aged 14 and older — and children aged 2 to 13, if the test is performed by an adult.

Albertans who screen positive or who have COVID-19 symptoms should book a PCR test and must isolate for 10 days or until they receive a negative PCR test result.

The test kits are user-friendly, said pharmacist Shivali Sharma, who owns three Shoppers Drug Mart locations in Edmonton.

After prepping the swab, tilt your head back and insert the swab up your nose, she said. 

"You're going to gently insert the swab into your nostril, about half an inch up, and for about five to 10 seconds, you're going to swirl.

"After you swirl, you're going to compress your nostril and rotate for another five to 10 seconds. And then repeat in the second nostril."

Because it takes time for the body to develop enough protein to be detectable by a rapid test after being exposed to COVID-19, the province recommends using the tests twice per week, 72 hours apart. A negative result does not rule out infection.

Watch: How to administer a rapid test 

How to use a take home COVID-19 test kit

1 year ago
Duration 1:51
With the province releasing home rapid COVID-19 test kits, Edmonton pharmacist Shivali Sharma shows CBC’s Pippa Reed how to use one properly.

Accuracy varies between 50 and 90 per cent and the tests are less reliable during the early stages of infection, said Dr. Lynora Saxinger, an infectious diseases specialist and associate professor at the University of Alberta.

Even with testing, Albertans will need to take precautions, Saxinger said.

"The test works best in people that have symptoms," Saxinger said. "The tests, I would still do them, but I would not rely on a negative at all.

"Even if you're feeling well, you can have a fair amount of virus that can transmit. There is some risk associated with that." 


Wallis Snowdon is a journalist with CBC Edmonton focused on bringing stories to the website and the airwaves. Originally from New Brunswick, Wallis has reported in communities across Canada, from Halifax to Fort McMurray. She previously worked as a digital and current affairs producer with CBC Radio in Edmonton. Share your stories with Wallis at wallis.snowdon@cbc.ca.

With files from Pippa Reed, Jennifer Lee