As travel opens up, the association representing Ontario's pharmacists is lobbying the province to drastically expand the number of pharmacies permitted to offer publicly funded PCR tests — the gold standard for assessing if someone has COVID-19.
The Ontario Pharmacists Association (OPA) is also asking the province to cover the cost for tests needed for "essential travel" like funerals or family crises.
PCR tests — also known as polymerase chain reaction tests — were covered by the province for travel-related reasons until late last year, when they were delisted.
Travellers in need of a test currently have to pay between $130 and $200 to get one at a pharmacy.
PCR testing is used by the province's public health unit testing centres to reliably determine if someone has COVID-19. Results take 24 to 48 hours to come in, but they're more reliable than rapid tests that can provide results in less than 45 minutes.
"With the border restrictions planning to ease over the next several weeks, I think you're going to definitely see a spike in [demand]," said Justin Bates, the association's CEO.
"So having more availability of more locations will only help."
Although vaccinated travellers no longer have to quarantine upon their return to Canada, they're still required to provide proof of a negative COVID-19 PCR test before coming home — and must take a second test upon arrival.
Many countries also now require evidence of a negative COVID-19 test before getting on a plane from Canada.
More than 2,000 pharmacies want to test
While there are 211 Ontario pharmacies authorized to provide publicly funded PCR tests so that people can visit loved ones in long-term care homes, if essential travel also ends up being covered, there are more than 2,000 pharmacies willing to offer them, Bates said.
"It hasn't expanded by any meaningful measure really over the last 10 months," said Bates.
Test requirements depend on where air travellers are going: the United States, for instance, requires a negative PCR or rapid antigen test, Russia accepts only a negative PCR test, and Mexico doesn't need a negative test at all.
Earlier this month, Ottawa's COVID-19 assessment centres also began providing PCR testing for travellers to support the pharmacies. Some private companies also provide tests.
The rising demand means some pharmacies are now seeing lineups, something that doesn't surprise Ottawa pharmacist Jordan Clark.
"I think people, after 18 months of not travelling, are ready to get back on an airplane and travel and see family," said Clark, who operates one of the 211 Ontario pharmacies that can provide PCR tests for other reasons approved by the province.
Offering the test to travellers wouldn't require a new skill, he said.
While the OPA has asked the Ministry of Health to expand the number of pharmacies eligible to offer publicly funded PCR tests, the ministry was not able to provide a response in time for publication.
"Having more access points just makes sense," said Bates, "We have lots of interested pharmacies, especially in the north, and areas where access to testing centres isn't as convenient or as local."