An expected delivery of rapid home tests from Ottawa has been delayed, leaving pharmacy shelves empty as Alberta cuts back on the availability of lab-based tests.
“Alberta Health has been informed that the expected delivery of rapid home COVID-19 tests has been delayed by the federal government and manufacturers,” said Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, on Twitter Tuesday.
“Alberta Health is working hard to get more supplies as soon as possible.”
Hinshaw did not say when more swabs are expected or whether the delayed delivery would delay distribution of the kits in Alberta classrooms.
The county had promised that 4.3 million tests would be delivered to K-12 schools this week, and another 4.3 million later this month. Together, the 8.6 million tests for schools are part of a pool of 15 million tests that the government says would be available across the province by January.
Alberta is now rationing PCR testing, meaning most Albertans will have to rely on rapid at-home testing for evidence of COVID-19 infection. But the free kits were hard to come by.
Omicron and rising demand
Alberta isn’t the only one struggling with the supply.
Demand for rapid tests has skyrocketed and Ottawa is catching up, Public Services and Procurement Secretary Filomena Tassi said Wednesday.
“Up until the beginning of January, we had bought and delivered every test that the provinces and territories asked for,” Tassi told a news conference. “With the onset of Omicron in December, those requests escalated.”
Tassi said her team is in regular contact with Canada’s suppliers to ensure that increasing demand is met. About 140 million rapid tests will be spread across the country this month, she said.
“We are doing everything we can to secure as many rapid tests as possible because we know this is a very valuable tool for provinces and territories.
“This is a very competitive market and there are supply chain issues.”
Alberta ration PCR testing
Alberta’s rapid tests are distributed on a first-come, first-served basis at select pharmacies in Edmonton, Calgary and Red Deer, and at Alberta Health Services locations in other communities in the province.
Since they were first made available to the public for the holiday season, the kits have quickly disappeared from pharmacy shelves, and many Albertans continue to hunt for the coveted swabs.
The latest shortfall comes when K-12 students return to the classroom and a spate of Omicron cases drives the provincial labs beyond their capacity.
Watch: How to take a rapid test
Alberta Health said last week the province had confirmed shipping dates for at least four million rapid tests from the federal government.
On January 4, Alberta Health spokesperson Christa Jubinville said inventories were expected to remain low in the first half of January due to expected delivery dates from manufacturers and Health Canada. She said additional inventory would be available to ship to pharmacies the week of Jan. 17.
On Monday, Hinshaw announced that the availability of PCR tests would become increasingly limited.
Alberta now reserves PCR testing for people with risk factors for severe outcomes and for people who live or work in high-risk environments.
Other Albertans who develop COVID-19 symptoms are told to assume they have Omicron and isolate if necessary.
‘Friends beg’ for cotton buds
Searching in vain for the swabs was frustrating, Rhonda Scheurer said. The Edmonton woman said she initially dragged her heels when getting a kit, but soon regretted it.
She visited several pharmacies over the holidays while in Red Deer and continued the search in Edmonton after returning home on Boxing Day.
“As soon as we got symptomatic, I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, we don’t have one. I don’t know how we’re going to get any of it,” Scheurer said. “It went from zero to 60 very quickly.”
When Scheurer and her husband started to feel unwell, she posted on social media asking if anyone had any kit left.
Scheurer said her “beg friends” tactic paid off, and she got a kit last week. She and her husband tested negative, but she remains frustrated with the lack of testing.
The county should do more to ensure it has accurate data on transmission, Scheurer said.
“It jeopardizes our coverage. And I think it also opens the door to misinformation about our cases.”