Saskatchewan's plan to provide more than 1.3 million rapid antigen COVID-19 self-test kits to residents is getting underway.
The plan to distribute the kits, announced by the provincial government on Oct. 15 and slated to begin this week, comes as the province continues to fight against a rising number of COVID cases, which are putting the hospital system under pressure.
A limited number of the kits will be available from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Friday at the Chamber of Commerce office in Swift Current and from 9 a.m. until noon at the chamber office in Meadow Lake, according to an update on the province's website.
The chamber office in Meadow Lake said it had received some 4,000 kits. The two cities have a combined population of about 22,000.
Tests gone in 45 minutes: Swift Current chamber CEO
Karla Wiens, CEO of the Swift Current and District Chamber of Commerce, said the chamber there received 4,700 kits that were to be distributed over a three-hour period on Friday. But the supply was gone in less than an hour, she said.
"We posted signs outside the office on multiple different doors and over our social media. Unfortunately, there were some disappointed people that had to leave empty-handed," she said.
"I'd say judging from the depletion of our supply within 45 minutes, we definitely will welcome more and we have been told that we will be regularly replenished with supplies. SHA [the Saskatchewan Health Authority] determines how many kits are allocated to each community distribution location, so we'll see what happens next week."
Wiens said it was heartwarming to see the interest from the community, and the process of distribution went smoothly, since the chamber was not required to record any details aside from the number of test kits required by an individual.
In a teleconference on Friday morning, Marlo Pritchard, president of the Saskatchewan Public Safety Agency, said finding locations for rapid test kit distribution, such as fire stations and chambers of commerce, depends on the willingness and ability of locations to participate in the voluntary distribution effort.
"You have to appreciate there is a fair amount of logistics that goes out in regards to identifying those locations that are willing to voluntarily deploy those rapid test kits," Pritchard said.
An additional four million rapid test kits will be coming in November from the federal government, which will be rolled out in the coming weeks, he said.
405,000 tests sent out so far: ministry
In an emailed statement sent Friday afternoon, the province's Ministry of Health said 405,650 rapid tests had been distributed to local Chambers of Commerce, fire halls and hotels as of Thursday.
Another 364,000 tests were ready to be shipped to Indigenous Services Canada, the statement said, which "is confirming the locations to which these should be shipped, and then the deliveries will leave the warehouse."
The kits are intended to be made available to the general public is on a first-come, first-served basis, the ministry said, and "the government of Saskatchewan is communicating this intent to its partner organizations."
The province's website said locations in Lloydminster, Melville, Moose Jaw, Prince Albert, Regina, Saskatoon and Warman will receive kits next week. Other locations are expected to be added, the website says.
As part of Saskatchewan's proof of vaccine policy — which requires Saskatchewan Health Authority health-care employees to either be fully vaccinated or regularly tested for COVID-19 — SHA employees who choose not to be vaccinated will also be provided with rapid tests.
While the province will offer most of the self-testing kits for free, "individual staff members will be required to pay for entry into the program in order to offset the cost of the tests and other administrative costs associated with the overall program," Derek Miller, the chief of emergency operations with the health authority, said Friday.
Miller said it will cost $225 a month for the employees to participate in the rapid testing program.
In addition, more than 360,000 tests will be provided to First Nations communities through a provincial allocation with Indigenous Services Canada.
The self-testing kits are part of the Saskatchewan's Test to Protect program for asymptomatic surveillance.
The program is aimed at supporting community-based services in sustaining healthy congregate living programs and workplaces through the early detection of COVID-19 and the prevention of outbreaks. Some of the congregate settings include long-term care and personal-care homes, schools, shelters, and detox facilities group homes.
Last weekend, the province took down a list of 20 locations from its website where people were supposed to be able to get COVID-19 rapid, self-testing kits. The Ministry of Health later clarified that the removal was due to an incredible demand for the take-home tests, which weren't available yet for pick up.