Head of pharmacists association wants provincial COVID-19 testing program expanded in north

Back in September, the province promised that people without COVID symptoms would be able to get tested at pharmacies. While dozens of pharmacies in southern hotspots now offer that service, none in northern Ontario do. The CEO of the Ontario Pharmacists Association says the service is needed in the north, and there are pharmacies willing to step up.

Pharmacist testing program currently run in southern Ontario hotspots for novel coronavirus

Pharmacists in southern Ontario hotspots have been able to provide COVID-19 testing since September. The head of the Ontario Pharmacists Association wants to see the program expanded into northern Ontario. (Jung Yeon-je/AFP/Getty Images)

A government program announced in September to expand asymptomatic COVID-19 testing to Ontario pharmacies, is still not available in the north.

Dozens of pharmacies in southern Ontario hotspots offer the service, but there are none in northern Ontario.

Yet, there are northern pharmacies willing to do the testing, said Justin Bates, CEO of the Ontario Pharmacists Association (OPA).

He said the Ministry of Health hasn't issued any approvals to expand the program into the north.

Justin Bates is the CEO of the Ontario Pharmacists Association. (CBC)

"The program as it was originally envisioned was meant to be an initial rollout into the hotspot regions in the province where cases were surging," Bates said. Northern Ontario was to have its own separate strategy.

But that hasn't happened.

"It does make sense for a revisiting of the strategy to make sure there is consistency and access across all parts of the province," Bates said.

"Much more can be done to evolve the program and ensure [COVID-testing] is available in every community," he added.

According to Bates, OPA has a master list of northern Ontario pharmacists who are ready to step forward to conduct the COVID tests, once the ministry issues its approval.

Reduce burden on assessment centres

Bates feels that pharmacies in northern Ontario could help alleviate the burden on COVID-19 assessment centres, by helping with testing, especially in rural and Indigenous communities.

"Pharmacies have a footprint in those communities where they can be accessed for services like asymptomatic COVID-testing, and I think it makes sense to leverage that capacity and to provide the service to all parts of the province," he said.

Some asymptomatic individuals may end up paying for tests from pharmacies which have their own test kits, and will supply private testing for a fee. 

Travellers now must pay for tests to prove they are COVID-free.

"Ideally you would put it through the public program and have it as broad as possible so that people are not paying out of pocket, but that's how the model has evolved. I see more of it going private in the next while versus going into the public pay system," Bates said.

"We would prefer it to go through the public program, he added"

In a statement, the Ministry of Health says it's prioritizing pharmacy testing in regions which are experiencing the greatest number of COVID-19 cases. It adds it is committed to expanding the program.

With files from Kate Rutherford


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