Two weeks after the federal government publicly revealed only about four per cent of nearly 42 million procured COVID-19 rapid testing kits have been used, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced an expanded program for small and medium-sized businesses to get free rapid tests for employees.
"Cases have been found in asymptomatic people who had no idea they were positive, but because of the test result were then able to isolate to prevent transmission," Trudeau said at a news conference today.
The kits will be made available to eligible businesses and non-profit organizations, who can pick them up starting at 40 Shoppers Drug Mart locations in Ontario. The government has also opened a federal portal for online orders.
The announcement comes as some provinces and territories ease restrictions on who can use rapid tests. Both Alberta and Ontario have eliminated any requirements for a health-care provider's presence, but critics say the federal government and provinces wasted time and resources before making the kits widely available.
"It's kind of a moot point anyway because I'd already bought 3,000 test kits," said Jim Corcoran, owner of Ste. Anne's Spa in Grafton, Ont., in an interview.
He also said Ontario's health authorities told him in early April he did not qualify to receive kits from the stockpile of more than 11 million the federal government had sent Ontario's way, as they were reserved for essential businesses.
"Even guests who don't see the point of the test, when we can convince them to have a test, when that little line turns blue, they breathe a sigh of relief," Corcoran said.
The federal data shows even Ontario, which is ahead of many other jurisdictions, has used only 1.3 million of the tests it has received.
Some provinces anticipate increase in testing
CBC News contacted all 13 provincial and territorial public health bodies to find out where they stand on using rapid tests. Not all of them responded.
Ontario did say it expects to see an increase in the number of tests it uses.
"The government is in contact with dozens more interested companies to introduce testing at their worksites, and we continue to make steady progress in the distribution of rapid tests," it said in a statement.
WATCH | Millions of rapid tests unused across Canada:
Alberta, which had been among the provinces asking Ottawa to speed up distribution early on in the pandemic, said it has deployed about 2.6 million tests of the three million it has received so far.
But according to the federal website, there is a difference between deployment and use. The former means tests have arrived at their final distribution spots, whereas use means someone has tested themselves. For Alberta, 205,282 of the deployed tests have been used — less than 10 per cent.
Meanwhile, Prince Edward Island said it has yet to find a use for a particular type of test it received: 26,400 Panbio tests, which are specifically for situations of high infection in a community.
P.E.I. said in a statement it had not had that issue yet, and it had deferred further shipments of Panbio tests.
"At the beginning of the pandemic, there were concerns that we didn't have enough testing supplies," said assistant professor Lorian Hardcastle at the University of Calgary's Faculty of Law and Cumming School of Medicine.
She said Ottawa may have responded too indiscriminately to the pressure, making sure to buy a surplus of tests. "There should have been more back and forth," she said. "What kinds of tests are appropriate for which communities, and which provinces?"
She suggested tests meant for places with high infection rates could have been redeployed to some essential workplaces that had that issue, such as meat-packing plants in Alberta.
While provinces prepare for wider distribution, a pilot project in coordination with the Kitchener-Waterloo Chamber of Commerce has been at work since mid-April, with buses converted to mobile testing clinics for employees of businesses in the region.
"The challenge is really in trying to get governments and public-health organizations to buy into and understand the importance of serial screening, serial testing," said Iain Klugman, CEO of Communitech, the firm helping companies hook up with a supply of rapid tests from Ontario's share of the federal load.
"They're not complicated and we need to get them into workplaces and getting people using them in a serial fashion," he said.