Toronto

Ontario expands rapid test rollout, but sticking with COVID-19 mandates for now

Ontario is lifting a directive that ordered hospitals to halt non-urgent surgeries and announced Wednesday it will expand access to rapid tests, but has no plans to end its vaccine passport or masking rules ahead of schedule. 

Province also resuming non-urgent surgeries in coming days, health minister says

Ontario is rolling out free COVID-19 rapid antigen tests at grocery stores, pharmacies and other settings starting Wednesday. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

Ontario is lifting a directive that ordered hospitals to halt non-urgent surgeries and announced Wednesday it will expand access to rapid tests, but has no plans to end its vaccine passport or masking rules ahead of schedule. 

The province says it will distribute COVID-19 rapid antigen tests at grocery stores, pharmacies and other settings starting Wednesday. The tests will also be available through online order or pickup at the 2,385 participating grocery stores and pharmacies listed on the province's website.

Some participating retailers include Costco, Shoppers Drug Mart, Loblaws, Metro, Food Basics, Rexall, Sobeys, Real Canadian Superstore, Longo's, Walmart.

In a news release, the province announced it has obtained more rapid tests and will distribute up to 5.5 million per week. It will distribute up to 44 million over an eight-week span in total.

Also Wednesday, Health Minister Christine Elliott said the province will be lifting the non-urgent surgeries directive, allowing surgeries including cancer and heart procedures to resume in the next few days.

The directive ordered hospitals to halt non-urgent surgeries and procedures earlier this year.

Limit of 1 box per household

In addition to grocery stores and pharmacies, the province also says it will provide tests to 21 community-led agencies including community centres, places of worship and food banks.

The news comes weeks after the province restricted access to more reliable PCR tests as the Omicron variant overwhelmed testing capacity in Ontario. Officials noted that rapid test results however will not be entered into the province's case tracking system known as COVax.

Elliott said the province doesn't plan to track results from the rapid tests, but is looking at other indicators such as hospitalizations, intensive care admissions and wastewater surveillance to monitor the spread of COVID-19.

The wider availability of rapid tests is intended to give people "another layer of protection" as the province reopens, Elliott said, helping people rule out infections before seeing immunocompromised family members and friends, for example.

"[It's] not just to go out and get a test because you want to go to a party," she said. "This is intended to be used to protect vulnerable people in our community."

Nurses prepare to perform a proning procedure on an intubated patient in the intensive care unit of Humber River Hospital, in Toronto, on Jan. 25. Health Minister Christine Elliott said the province will be lifting the non-urgent surgeries directive, allowing surgeries including cancer and heart procedures to resume in the next few days. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

​There will be a limit of one box of five tests per household, per visit, the province says. However, retailers will not be required to take down health cards or names to ensure that limit isn't being exceeded. Officials say they urge Ontarians to respect the one-box-per-household limit.

The province says communities identified as high priority based on high historical rates of COVID-19 and other factors will have more focused, community-level distribution strategies.

The expanded rapid test rollout will be in addition to rapid tests previously provided to high-risk sectors including the healthcare sector, congregate settings and schools, the province says.

To date, the province has distributed nearly 76 million rapid antigen tests to more than 63,600 locations, according to provincial officials. 

Opposition says there are still price tags for 'free tests'

The NDP says the new initiative doesn't prohibit companies from requiring minimum purchases to get a rapid test.

They point out Walmart, which has a free rapid test program in partnership with the Ontario government, requires a minimum purchase of $35 before taxes in order to qualify.

"What we need is free access to an important health care tool," said NDP Deputy Leader Sara Singh in a press release. "Not free-with-minimum-purchase."

The NDP is advocating for free rapid tests made accessible to everyone through mail and in-person. It also says the Ford government should increase access to PCR tests for people worried they might have the illness.

No plans to speed up end to vaccine passports

Asked Wednesday if Ontario would move up its timeline to remove vaccine passport or masking rules, Elliott noted the province isn't out of the woods yet and pointed to the presence of Omicron and sub-variant BA.2.

WATCH | No plans to drop vaccine passport or masking yet, Elliott says:

Ontario not dropping vaccine passport or masking for now, says minister

6 months ago
Duration 1:26
Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliott says the province is sticking to a cautious path toward loosening public health restrictions because of the spread of highly transmissible coronavirus variants.

Elliott said Ontario won't be following the lead of other provinces like Alberta and Saskatchewan, which started lifting vaccine passport rules this week and plan to end masking requirements in the near future. She said Ontario intends to keep those measures for while longer, though she didn't say exactly when they would lift.

"We still need to be very careful. We are not telling the people of Ontario that this is going to remain in place forever," Elliott said. "But we're not in the clear just yet."

Ontario started gradually lifting restrictions on businesses, social gatherings and other settings late last month, and plans to further roll back restrictions at three-week intervals.

Elliott indicated Wednesday that the province is sticking to that timeline, noting that the province wants to remove restrictions "as soon as we can," based on scientific advice.

66 more deaths linked to COVID-19 reported 

The ministry said Wednesday morning that as of Tuesday, there were 2,059 people with COVID-19 in the province's hospitals. That's down from 2,254 the day before and 2,939 at the same time last week. 

About 56 per cent of those patients were admitted for illnesses related to the virus, while 44 per cent were already in hospital when they tested positive, according to the province.

As of Monday, there were 449 patients who required intensive care, down from 474 the day before and 555 the same time last week.

About 80 per cent of the people in ICUs were admitted for reasons directly related to the virus.

An additional 66 deaths were also reported, pushing the province's official toll to 11,944.

With files from Sara Jabakhanji and The Canadian Press

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