A national grassroots initiative is raising awareness of the lack of access to publicly funded rapid COVID-19 tests — including in Newfoundland and Labrador, one of just a few provinces that don't provide the tests for free.
Dr. Dalia Hasan, based in Kitchener, Ont., founded COVID Test Finders last fall to help people find rapid antigen tests in their area.
"We've been in this pandemic for quite some time now and it's imperative for us to use all the public health tools that are available in order to safeguard our health and help us get back to our pre-pandemic lives or some kind of semblance of it," Hasan told CBC News on Friday.
Most provinces and territories offer free rapid antigen tests — or RATs — that can be picked up at pharmacies, grocery stores and even libraries. The federal government has paid for over 140 million of them. Newfoundland and Labrador, Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick, however, are the only provinces that don't provide them to the general public for free.
In a statement to CBC News, the provincial Department of Health said as of Thursday it had distributed 4,957,870 rapid antigen self-tests. About 1.4 million remain in storage to be used to replenish the supply used in schools and daycare centres, for those working and living in congregate living facilities and for those working in health care.
Just under 1.4 million tests are used per month on priority program areas, the Health Department said, adding "a small reserve is held in case they are be needed in the event of an outbreak." The numbers do not include rapid tests administered through the province's health authorities.
Hasan said her initiative's campaign, #FreetheRATs, is aimed at putting pressure on governments to distribute the rapid tests to their residents for free.
"If there was a shortage of rapid tests it would make perfect sense to prioritize them for high risk groups," she said.
"However, given the ample supply bought by the federal government with our tax dollars and distributed in abundance to each province, I'm hard pressed to figure why Newfoundland and Labrador would stockpile rapid tests while the rest of Canada distributes them freely to the public."
Calling for transparency
In December most provinces weren't distributing free rapid tests to the public, Hasan said, because they were waiting for further supplies before taking that step.
But even as supplies began to roll out to the communities for free, three provinces held off.
"It was shocking to see P.E.I., New Brunswick and Newfoundland and Labrador are lagging behind in terms of distributing these public health tools," Hasan said.
"It's very difficult to understand why, so we just ask for transparency from the government of Newfoundland and Labrador to tell us why they're not freely available to the public at large so that the public can understand where their tax dollars are being used."
The Health Department said the federal government has indicated it will continue to supply rapid antigen tests to the provinces, with discussions continuing about the delivery schedule.