Canadians across the country are rushing to obtain COVID-19 rapid tests amid the spread of the Omicron variant, only to find limited supplies and confusing rollouts.
Lineups at Ontario liquor stores (LCBO) are a common sight during the holiday season, but many at locations across the province on Friday were in search of tests.
The provincial government has said two million rapid tests will be made available for free at pop-up testing sites in high-traffic settings including some malls, retail settings, holiday markets, public libraries and transit hubs over the holidays, as well as at select LCBO locations.
However, David Brennan arrived an LCBO location in Ottawa right before 9 a.m. ET only to learn none were yet available.
"The parking lot was jammed," he said. "There were audible groans of disappointment when the guy with the sign came out. It all felt very improvised and dystopian."
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Both the Ministry of Health's "pop-up holiday" web page and LCBO's press materials had indicated tests would be available at LCBOs beginning on Friday.
By late Friday morning, shipments had arrived at some locations and a select few were able to snag tests before the LCBO said on Twitter at 7:21 p.m. ET that its supply had run out.
Shortages were also reported in Alberta, where the provincial government says select pharmacies and Alberta Health Services sites are now handing out tests.
Mohamed Elfishawi, owner of two Edmonton pharmacies, said lineups at his stores were "crazy huge."
"We've had tons of calls from people wanting them," he said. Elfishaw said he ordered 1,000 kits for each of his pharmacies but received less than half of what he had requested.
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By 9 a.m. MT, Alberta Health Services said its sites in Lethbridge, Medicine Hat, Pincher Creek and Coaldale had already run out of stock due to "very high demand."
"I think it's great that the hot-ticket item is rapid tests," said Sarah Mackey, a volunteer with Vaccine Hunters Alberta. "It's a positive thing but I wish it didn't come at the cost of more stress for pharmacists and more stress for people lining up."
Rollout day has been bumpy, Mackey said. She said the volunteer group has heard from pharmacies that some deliveries have yet to arrive.
'Very, very powerful tool'
Early data suggests Omicron is more transmissible than previous variants, with the number of Omicron cases in Canada is now doubling every two days or less. Experts warn the sheer number of Omicron-driven cases may soon put major strain on health-care systems.
Craig Jenne, an infectious diseases expert at the University of Calgary, says rapid tests provide an important layer of protection against as Omicron threatens to dominate infection rates.
"It's a little step, but a very, very powerful tool when used properly," Jenne said. "To do a rapid test prior to dinner to ensure that there are no breakthrough infections coming to your Christmas gathering can be a very effective tool in keeping these environments safe."
Some provinces have already made rapid rests available to residents while others are planning to roll them out soon.
Meanwhile, Quebec will begin giving out 10 million tests in pharmacies across the province on Monday, and Manitoba is set to receive an initial shipment of 110,000 tests which it plans to make available to students in kindergarten to Grade 6 in First Nations schools.