Ontario's Ministry of Health is reviewing 10 sites in Ottawa as locations for people to pick up free COVID-19 rapid antigen tests as part of the province's "holiday testing blitz."
This week, the province said it would open nearly 150 pop-up locations, including some at LCBOs, across the province from now to mid-January where people can pick up one kit of several rapid tests at no charge.
No Ottawa locations were initially listed on the schedule published Wednesday afternoon. By Thursday afternoon, the ministry said 10 locations, including malls and "city centres," were pending local approval.
"They will be added to the website as soon as we receive confirmation of available dates and times," a spokesperson said via email.
Dr. Vera Etches, Ottawa's medical officer of health, said in a media briefing Thursday the city believes the first shipment of free tests from the Ontario government will arrive in the city on Dec. 21. That is still five days away.
Also on Thursday, the LCBO released the list of its stores that will offer free rapid tests, including seven in Ottawa:
Bank Street and Walkley Road.
Carling Avenue and Woodroffe Avenue (Fairlawn Centre).
Rideau Street and King Edward Avenue.
Blair Road and Ogilvie Road (Gloucester).
West Hunt Club Road and Merivale Road (Nepean Crossroads).
Strandherd Drive and Greenbank Road (Nepean).
Innes Road and Tenth Line Road (Orleans).
No purchase of alcohol will be necessary to obtain a test, the ministry said.
It is not clear if those seven locations are among the 10 cited by the province. CBC News has reached out to the ministry for clarification.
The province's announcement came as local residents expressed frustration with the lack of wider access to free kits to date.
WATCH | Ottawa residents frustrated by unavailability of rapid tests
There have been previous avenues for some people to get free tests. The Ottawa Board of Trade said it has provided 816 small- and medium-sized businesses (including non-members) with a total of 103,000 tests since Labour Day.
"The take-up of these kits is increasing every single week," said spokesperson Kimothy Walker, adding scheduled pickups are booked through to Jan. 6.
The province is also sending a total of 11 million tests home with students over the holidays, which are distributed by schools.
Ottawa resident Edward Ng said the rollout strategy has left him in the lurch.
Ng is a federal public servant who works from home and his children currently attend school virtually, so they won't test kits from their school, he said.
"We're struggling a bit with that," he said. "At least one layer of protection is to get those tests."
Ng said he'd like to use tests to safely plan his first dinner with his in-laws in over a year.
PCR tests more cumbersome
Unlike PCR tests, which are offered at hospitals and other health-care settings and are considered the gold standard in testing, rapid antigen tests offer a quick way to detect a potential infection.
While the highly sensitive PCR tests are sent off for lab analysis and typically take at least a day to provide patients with results, rapid tests are a bit like an at-home pregnancy test: A do-it-yourself version that shows results in around 15 minutes.
Ng said he's considered ordering tests from private sellers online, but they're expensive.
Angelica Haggert has already gone down that route. The Ottawa resident ordered 20 tests for $200 on Tuesday, a day before the province's holiday pop-up announcement.
"We're lucky enough that we can afford them," she said.
One online provider, Rapid Test and Trace Canada, said it's seen demand for tests "explode" in the past few weeks. Co-founder Sandy White said the business began as a testing advocacy group, then morphed into a retailer earlier this year.
"Government has really failed in being able to step up and offer people these products either free or cheap and effectively," White said.
According to Health Canada, Ontario received 31.8 million rapid tests from the federal government as of Dec. 3, with fewer than one third of those tests reported as used.
"Every other province in Canada has the same discrepancy reported between tests distributed and tests used," a ministry spokesperson said. "It's our expectation that rapid tests are used once they've been deployed by the province."
Ontario has also independently procured 20 million tests, the spokesperson added.
More than 45M tests given out, province says
The ministry said Ontario has distributed more than 45.8 million rapid tests to settings such as schools, hospitals and workplaces. That includes the 11 million tests for students over the holidays.
While the schedule for pickups is currently packed, Walker says there remains "months of supply left" for businesses.
Ontario's initial blitz announcement said the list of locations would be updated weekly.
"We are working with local partners, public health units and municipalities to determine specific pop-up sites based on local data and needs," the province stated on its website.
Molecular take-home tests also available
Under a different program, the University of Ottawa is offering free molecular COVID-19 self-tests to Ontarians 16 and over who qualify after filling out a self-assessment screener at getakit.ca/covid.
Patrick O'Byrne with the university's Faculty of Health Sciences is helping administer the pilot program, which is funded by the ministry and uses Lucira take-home tests that were approved by Health Canada earlier this year.
So far the program has distributed a total 5,000 kits and it has about 1,500 left, O'Byrne said.
"Demand has skyrocketed," he said. "Since early December [alone], we've distributed about 3,000 kits."