Hundreds line up before dawn, end up with rapid test rain check

Hundreds of people lined up early Tuesday morning outside the site of the Ontario government's first non-LCBO giveaway of free COVID-19 rapid tests in Ottawa, only to be given wristbands and told to come back later. (Jess Brown/Twitter - image credit)
Hundreds of people lined up early Tuesday morning outside the site of the Ontario government's first non-LCBO giveaway of free COVID-19 rapid tests in Ottawa, only to be given wristbands and told to come back later. (Jess Brown/Twitter - image credit)

Hundreds of people lined up early Tuesday morning in Ottawa to acquire a box of free COVID-19 rapid tests, only to be given a rain check due to a shipment delay.

The Ontario government had stated tests would be available Tuesday at 7 a.m. at Minto Recreation Complex in the south Ottawa suburb of Barrhaven, the first non-LCBO location to hand out tests to the public at no cost.

When the doors opened, staff instead handed out 1,000 wristbands — guaranteeing those people a box of rapid tests — and told them to come back in a few hours.

Belinda Batten, the first person in line, says she arrived around 4 a.m. She's immunocompromised and wants to have people in her home for Christmas.

Francis Ferland/CBC
Francis Ferland/CBC

"It's important to have them tested," said Batten, who was disappointed in the operation Tuesday. "We haven't seen any organization, at all."

The recreation centre's large parking lot filled and the line for tests stretched out to nearby residential streets.

Spencer Van Dyk/CBC
Spencer Van Dyk/CBC

Lois Frankel was another resident hopeful for a box of tests. She says she arrived shortly after 6 a.m. and she did receive a green wristband. She said she wanted to get there early given one million rapid tests were quickly gobbled up by visitors at participating LCBOs across Ontario last Friday.

"I'm lucky," said Frankel, who lives in the Westboro area.

"I think the whole thing is an incredible opportunity. I'm not frustrated or anything. I was prepared to stand in line for an hour and a half and know that when I got to the door, maybe all the kits would be gone."

Francis Ferland/CBC
Francis Ferland/CBC

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.

The demand for PCR tests has been so high, though, public health officials have expressed potentially limiting access to essential workers and the most vulnerable population. That has only increased demand for rapid tests.

New pickup time

The province's "holiday testing blitz" page was updated later Tuesday morning to say tests will be available at the recreation centre at 12 p.m.

"There was a shipment delay this morning which has been resolved," a Ministry of Health spokesperson said via email.

By the afternoon, people reported they were able to pick up a box of five tests when showing their wristband.

"I will be sharing the pack of tests with family members," said Barrhaven resident Kathleen Sheridan. "While our Christmas gathering will be small as per the rules, gives us that extra sense of protection."

Further delay flagged by city

The Minto Recreation Complex is the first of 10 non-LCBO sites officials hinted might offer free rapid tests for Ottawa residents. The complex was scheduled to hand out more tests each day through Christmas Eve.

But by late Tuesday afternoon, the City of Ottawa warned future shipments for that location had not yet been received.

"Distribution will be delayed and updates about kit availability will be shared on our social channels," according to a tweet from its official account. "Please avoid going to the complex until we provide updated times."

The blitz is expected to last until mid-January with Premier Doug Ford saying last Friday 10 million rapid tests were expected to arrive in the province on Dec. 27.

None of the other Ottawa locations has been announced yet, which is a source of disappointment for Aiden Eccles-Bruce, who arrived at around at 5:45 a.m. and received a wristband.

"I know they tried the LCBOs, but there's only one [non-LCBO] location in all of Ottawa. There's over a million people here. And you can see for yourself there what's happening," he said, gesturing to other test seekers.

Francis Ferland/CBC
Francis Ferland/CBC

The ministry said in an email on Monday that locations across the province were identified by local health partners and businesses where higher traffic is anticipated over the holiday season and where vaccinated and unvaccinated people are likely to gather.

"Additional pop-ups will be added to the website upon confirmation by individual locations."

The ministry denied accusations this first site was chosen because it is in the riding of PC MPP Lisa MacLeod. Barrhaven schools recently saw an "explosive growth" in cases, according to Dr. Vera Etches, Ottawa's medical officer of health.

The suburb has been the site of a large school outbreak and a large outbreak at a martial arts studio. Each of those outbreaks has since ended.