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A guide to rapid COVID-19 tests


Ontario plans to hand out two million free rapid tests in a holiday blitz at shopping malls, markets, transit hubs and LCBOs. The first pop-ups opened Thursday, mainly in the Toronto area. Ten are planned for Ottawa, with the first test shipments scheduled for Dec. 21.

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People in Ottawa will be able to get free COVID-19 rapid tests at seven local LCBO outlets, but pop-up sites to distribute the tests at places like shopping malls aren’t scheduled to arrive in the capital until Dec. 21.

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Ontario plans to hand out two million free rapid tests in a holiday blitz at shopping malls, markets, transit hubs and LCBOs. The first pop-ups opened Thursday, mainly in the Toronto area, with some long lineups.

Ten pop-ups are planned for Ottawa, with the first test shipments scheduled for Dec. 21, Ottawa Medical Officer of Health Dr. Vera Etches said during a media conference Thursday. Mayor Jim Watson, who was also at the conference, said he would lobby the province to get the pop-ups to Ottawa sooner.

“We’ll be working with the province to see if we can’t get those kits sooner than the 21st of December. That’s five days from now,” Watson said.

A spokesperson for Health Minister Christine Elliott said the Ottawa pop-up locations were still “pending local approval.”

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Once the province receives confirmation of dates and times, Ottawa sites will be added to the provincial website listing the pop ups, Alexandra Hilkene said in a statement.

Free rapid tests will also be available at the checkouts of seven Ottawa LCBO stores: Bank & Walkley; Carling and Woodroffe (Fairlawn Plaza); Rideau & King Edward; Gloucester Blair & Ogilvie; Nepean Hunt Club and Merivale; Nepean Strandherd & Greenbank; and Orleans Innes & Tenth Line Road.

The LCBO said in a media release that tests would “start to be available” in a total of 100 stores, including those in Ottawa, “as early as Thursday (Dec. 16).” Officials did not immediately clarify when stores in Ottawa would have the tests.

In the meantime, many people aren’t waiting for the free rapid tests, ordering their own online to administer at home or making appointments at pharmacies for rapid tests.

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Steve Duncan said his family of four have 20 rapid tests ready. Sons Olivier and Simon were each given a pack of five tests at school to use during the holidays under a provincial program that has made 11 million tests available to students.

Duncan  purchased another 10 tests online from The Canadian Shield, a Waterloo company.

The family plans to fly to Vancouver on Dec. 21 to visit family they haven’t seen in three years, Duncan said, depending on the fast-evolving COVID-19 situation, of course.  “We are being as cautious as we can, and we’re watching the news…”

Duncan said they’d use the rapid tests before attending family gatherings in B.C., and he’ll test himself before meeting with a friend in Ottawa outside for a drink. They might also take rapid tests both before and after their flights.

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“I know they are not 100 per cent accurate,” Duncan said. “But they are one more level of precaution that we can take, whether we are going out or whether we are seeing family. It’s just another level of security that we can have, alongside making sure everybody washes their hands and keeps their distance and wears a mask when possible.

“To me it’s comfort thing. I want to enjoy my Christmas and my celebrations with family. I don’t want to be stressed about, ‘Oh, my goodness, are we taking too many risks?’ We are taking as many precautions as we can.”

Duncan said he also ordered N95 masks, which provide more protection than cloth masks, for the family.

The senior marketing manager for The Canadian Shield said sales of rapid tests had skyrocketed 700 per cent in the past three weeks. Most of the company’s initial customers were businesses, Jessica Braun said.

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Now rapid tests are being snapped up by people who want to be safer during the holidays, she said. The company is shipping out 10,000 tests every couple of days and hiring more staff.

The company’s 25-pack test kits are sold out until Dec. 26. Five-packs remain available, although pre-Christmas delivery is not guaranteed.

Critics have been urging the provincial government for a year to make free rapid tests more widely available. They point out that many people can’t afford to buy them.

Here’s a guide to rapid antigen tests:

A lengthy queue snakes though Toronto’s Yorkdale Mall as people wait to receive a free COVID-19 rapid antigen test kit at a pop-up site at the shopping complex, on Thursday.
A lengthy queue snakes though Toronto’s Yorkdale Mall as people wait to receive a free COVID-19 rapid antigen test kit at a pop-up site at the shopping complex, on Thursday. Photo by Chris Young /The Canadian Press

Who are the tests available for?

In Ontario, 45.8 million rapid antigen tests have been distributed to targeted sectors, such as long-term care and retirement homes, hospitals, schools, First Nations communities and businesses.

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The first free tests widely available to the general public will be at holiday blitz pop-ups and LCBOs.

The federal government has promised to send millions more tests to the provinces, although it’s not clear yet how many Ontario will receive and how they will be distributed.

Where can people buy their own tests?

The tests are available to be administered by staff at some pharmacies, with an appointment, including Shoppers Drug Mart ($40 a test) and Rexall ($30 a test).

They can also be purchased online, where costs tend to be cheaper because you do the test yourself at home. At The Canadian Shield, for example, tests costs $8.99 each in the 25-pack and $9.99 each in the five-pack.

Another online site is rapidtestandtrace.ca.

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How can you be sure the tests purchased online are legitimate?

The provincial government does not have oversight over which companies decide to offer private testing, so it does not have a public database of them, the health ministry said.

However, companies selling rapid tests must have a medical device establishment licence from the federal government. You can search the licences by company name here .

In addition, the tests must be approved by Health Canada. Find a list of the 24 approved  rapid tests here .

What’s the big caveat with rapid tests?

Rapid tests are not a replacement for being vaccinated or a get-out-of-COVID-free pass to ignore other public health measures.

“Testing is not considered to be an effective preventive measure for COVID-19 on its own and does not replace public health strategies such as symptom screening, physical distancing, and hand hygiene,” says the Ontario government.

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So continue to follow all the other public-health advice for the holidays, including limiting the number of people you are in contact with, avoiding crowds, wearing a close-fitting mask, staying home if you are sick, getting tested if you have COVID-19 symptoms, being mindful of ventilation and washing your hands.

How accurate are rapid tests?

Rapid tests are good at detecting people when they are infectious, so they can isolate themselves and avoid spreading the virus to others.

However, the “gold standard” to diagnose COVID-19 is a PCR test, which is processed in a laboratory. PCR tests are more sensitive at detecting people at all stages of infection.

What if I test positive on a rapid test?

Get a PCR test to confirm the result, Dr. Etches says. Those tests are available at COVID-19 assessment centres and some pharmacies.

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Anyone who has been identified as a close contact of someone who has tested positive also requires a PCR test, Etches says.

Should I use a rapid test if I have symptoms of COVID-19?

No. Book a PCR test.

How do rapid tests work?

The tests can be done by pharmacy staff or you can do them yourself at home. Typically they involve putting a swab in the front of your nose and mixing it in a liquid, which is then dropped onto a test plate.

Follow the directions carefully and don’t use rapid tests outside in the cold.

How long does it take to get the results?

About 15 minutes.

When should you take a test?

Some people plan to use rapid tests before holiday gatherings. Take the test the day of the event, not the day before.

“There’s no point in testing yourself 24 hours before, and certainly not 48 hours, so as close as possible to the event,” says Dr. Mona Nemer, Canada’s chief science advisor.

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And don’t assume rapid testing will make large gatherings safe in the face of the Omicron variant, Dr. Peter Juni, scientific director for Ontario’s COVID-19 science advisory table, said during a Thursday call-in on CBC radio.

“Don’t expect miracles from the rapid test,” said Juni. “The risk is not low, even with rapid tests.”

Some people, for example, are planning gatherings of 20 people who will all take rapid tests, he said. “People think, ‘Oh, I’ll just take a rapid test and everything will be fine.’ That’s not true.”

jmiller@postmedia.com

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