Nfld. & Labrador

Make COVID-19 rapid tests more accessible, plead community groups and health-care providers

Thirty-four community groups and health-care providers have signed a letter asking the provincial government to increase access to COVID-19 rapid antigen tests in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Vulnerable people making 'dire' decisions, says advocate

Bridget Clarke, the St. John's Status of Women Council's advocacy co-ordinator, says some vulnerable people with a low or fixed income are forced to make dire decisions because of the cost of rapid tests. (Meg Roberts/CBC)

Thirty-four community groups and health-care providers in Newfoundland and Labrador say provincial options for obtaining a COVID-19 rapid antigen test are not equitable or sustainable.

On Monday, the St. John's Status of Women Council released an open letter on behalf of groups asking the provincial government to increase access to rapid tests. The letter, addressed to Premier Andrew Furey and Health Minister John Haggie, asks the government to distribute tests through community organizations, the regional health authorities and other venues.

Bridget Clarke, the council's advocacy co-ordinator, said Monday that without access to rapid tests, some vulnerable people with a low or fixed income are forced to make dire decisions.

"Especially with the increased costs of living, people are making decisions between transportation, food, rent, heat and purchasing rapid tests," Clarke said. "We believe that it's the government's responsibility to make rapid tests free, accessible, and that there's a sustainable supply for people who need them most."

Newfoundland and Labrador, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island are the only provinces in Canada that don't widely distribute COVID-19 rapid tests for free. In some provinces, including Nova Scotia, rapid tests are widely available at places like public libraries.

In Newfoundland and Labrador the price of a rapid test fluctuates, but CBC News found them on sale in the St. John's area for $12.50 per test through Avalon Laboratories and $14.99 per test at Marie's Mini Mart. A pack of five tests costs $59.99 at Eastern Safety Services in Conception Bay South.

"We know that people who are sick, like many of us can be, or who might be exposed, require multiple tests. And those costs really add up," Clarke said. 

1.4 million tests in storage with more on the way: Health Department

The Canadian Red Cross provides rapid tests to some community organizations, including the women's council, but Clarke said deliveries are sporadic and the program ends at the end of April. 

CBC News asked the Health Department for a response to the letter but a spokesperson noted Monday is a provincial government holiday.

Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Janice Fitzgerald said in March the government was trying to be strategic about using rapid tests.

The federal government has distributed 140 million rapid tests to the provinces. In a statement last week, the provincial government said it has distributed 4,957,870 rapid antigen self-tests so far, and about 1.4 million remained in storage. The Health Department said the federal government has indicated it will continue to supply the tests to the province.

Newfoundland and Labrador has distributed tests for free through schools — a distribution strategy Clarke said could be replicated for the regional health authorities. In rural areas, tests could be distributed through libraries, grocery stores and mobile units, said Clarke.

Impact on wages, access to support

While PCR testing is still available in some situations, most people who are symptomatic but are not at risk for severe disease are not eligible, and must take a rapid test instead — or self-isolate until 24 hours after symptoms have improved. 

Mark Nichols, a community organizer for the Workers' Action Action Network N.L., says it's a 'double-whammy' to have to take unpaid sick days because of COVID-19 and also to pay for a test to confirm recovery. (Ted Dillon/CBC)

Clarke said the women's council has heard from people who were symptomatic but couldn't access rapid tests so they were forced to self-isolate for longer than necessary.

"This can have impacts around loss of wages, loss of access to really critical supports and resources like education, like childcare," she said.

Mark Nichols, a community organizer for the Workers' Action Network N.L. — one of the organizations that signed the letter — said many low- and minimum-wage workers can't afford to buy rapid tests, but they also can't afford to self-isolate, especially since Newfoundland and Labrador does not have government-mandated paid sick days.

"You're already looking at going without income if you are sick with COVID," he said. "It's kind of a double whammy to turn around and … you've got to purchase these expensive tests in order to confirm that you have COVID."

Nichols noted a pack of two rapid tests — about $25 plus tax — is more than two hours of wages for minimum-wage workers.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from Meg Roberts

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