Provinces have been slow to use rapid COVID tests, new numbers show

Despite newly published data showing barely four per cent of rapid COVID tests delivered to the provinces have been used, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says his government’s procurement strategy is doing exactly what it was designed to do.

Just more than 4% of nearly 42M tests distributed across the country have been used

A nurse administers a rapid COVID-19 test at a construction site in Toronto in February of this year. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)

Despite newly published data showing barely four per cent of rapid COVID tests delivered to the provinces have been used, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said today his government's procurement strategy is doing exactly what it was designed to do.

"We have continued to reach out to ensure that we have all the potential equipment that we need, all the potential materials," Trudeau told reporters. 

"The announcement we made last week about potential vaccine boosters for the coming number of years is another example of how we would much rather be ready and prepared with equipment that doesn't get used — as much as we might have worried that it would be needed — rather than not have equipment ready in cases where it is needed."

The federal government has distributed 41,852,454 rapid tests to date. The provinces have received 25,319,957 of those test kits, while 16,532,497 have been retained by the federal government and distributed to the Department of National Defence, the Correctional Service of Canada, the Public Health Agency of Canada and northern and remote Indigenous communities.

Of the 41,852,454 tests distributed, only 1,731,673 have actually been used — a little less than 4.2 per cent of the total. The numbers on test deployment are not complete because Manitoba, the Yukon and Nunavut have not yet informed the federal government of the number of tests they have used, while P.E.I and Nova Scotia have provided only partial numbers.

The failure to use the tests is almost uniform across the country, although some provinces are using more than others and the federal government itself is using a smaller percentage of its tests than any region of the country.

Of the 16,532,497 tests delivered to federal departments and remote communities, only 43,476 — about 0.26 per cent of the total — have been used.

The provinces reporting the highest rate of use are P.E.I. (13.6 per cent) and Ontario (11.8 per cent). They are followed up by Nova Scotia (5.3 per cent), New Brunswick (5.2 per cent), Alberta (5 per cent) and Newfoundland and Labrador, which has used 4.2 per cent of the 389,632 rapid tests it has received.

While Ontario is one of the provinces with a relatively high use rate, the province has only used 1,315,596 of the 11,084,092 tests it has received.

Back in September, Ontario Premier Doug Ford called on Health Canada to make approval of rapid tests its "number one priority."

Ontario Premier Doug Ford holds up COVID-19 rapid testing device at Humber River Hospital in November. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)

Calling for tests and not using them

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney also pressured the federal government to speed approval of rapid tests back in the spring of 2020 and threatened to acquire the tests abroad if Health Canada did not approve them quickly enough here.

"The direction I've given our officials is, if we see a highly credible regulator, medications in a peer jurisdiction like the European Union, Australia or the United States that has approved a test or a vaccine or medication, we should pursue that," Kenney told CBC News Network's Power & Politics last year. "We should not wait for Health Canada to catch up."

The provinces and territories with the lowest rates of test usage are British Columbia — which has used just 0.87 per cent of its 2,796,506 tests — Quebec (1.86 per cent), Saskatchewan (2.8 per cent) and the Northwest Territories (1.76 per cent). 

Federal Procurement Minister Anita Anand told reporters Tuesday that because the federal government is never sure what direction the pandemic will take, and what will be needed when, her government has signed long-term contracts to prepare for various eventualities. 

"It is so very important for us to be prepared across the board, across the various categories of PPE [personal protective equipment] and supplies so that we can stand ready via the Public Health Agency of Canada to support the provinces and territories in terms of whatever requests they are putting forward, including on rapid tests," she said. 

Dr. Lynora Saxinger, an infectious disease specialist with the University of Alberta, said she is knows of no jurisdiction anywhere in the world where rapid tests have been rolled out properly and have delivered proven benefits.

"There's a lot of modelling and there's some limited experience but I've not really seen them showing evidence of how much they can help on a community basis," she said.

In February, B.C. Premier John Horgan told reporters that his province's reluctance to use rapid tests extensively was tied to reports in his province linking them to high rates of false results.

Rapid COVID-19 tests are less accurate and more susceptible to false positives than the lab-processed polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests that have formed the backbone of COVID-19 testing in Canada.

"You might have 125 positives and 90 of those would be false positives, and and all those people would have to go and isolate and work through a system of figuring out if it's a big deal or not," Saxinger said.

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