Ottawa scrambling to get more COVID-19 rapid tests with return to school just days away

OTTAWA—The frenzied marketplace for COVID-19 supplies that defined the early days of the pandemic appears to have returned with Ottawa scrambling to find rapid tests.

Federal Procurement Minister Filomena Tassi said Wednesday while 140 million more tests are expected to be doled out this month, the hunt for more continues.

“We are doing absolutely everything we can to procure as many tests as possible,” she told reporters Wednesday as pressure continued to mount from the provinces to deliver more tests.

Tassi said the market is competitive, and a number of problems are making things worse.

“There are issues with respect to the supply chain, and those deal with issues of labour, issues of accessing raw materials, and also the cargo planes and getting transportation,” she said.

Provinces have been counting on portable rapid antigen tests to compensate for the fact their capacity to run lab-based tests is overwhelmed by the rapid spread of the Omicron variant of COVID-19.

On Wednesday, for example, Ontario announced it was sending 3.9 million rapid tests to schools and daycares to prepare for the return to in-person learning on Monday.

The province plans to reserve access to PCR tests for children who develop symptoms while at school.

That’s on top of the 11 million rapid tests students were sent home with before the Christmas break.

“We still need millions more,” Education Minister Stephen Lecce said Wednesday.

Similar promises were made to provide rapid tests to schoolchildren in Alberta ahead of their return to school this year, but late Tuesday the province said their shipments had been held up.

“Alberta Health has learned that the expected supply of at-home rapid test kits has been delayed from the federal government and manufacturers,” Dr. Deena Hinshaw said on social media.

“Alberta Health is working hard to obtain more supply as soon as possible.”

The federal government says it has placed orders for 426 million rapid tests.

“We are going to continue to get those to provinces and territories as quickly as we can,” Tassi said.

The hunt for rapid tests is an echo of the earliest days of the COVID-19 pandemic when masks, gowns, gloves and other infection-prevention equipment were in scarce supply.

Countries quickly moved to protect their stockpiles, and stories circulated about brokers showing up at factory doors in China to pay cash for goods already sold to other nations.

The situation was so chaotic that Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland once likened it to the “wild west.”

The federal Conservatives have argued in recent days that the Liberals have failed to learn from that experience, and the scramble for goods is among the reasons for a return to public health restrictions across Canada.

Later this week, the House of Commons health committee is set to decide whether to further investigate procurement and supply issues.

Stephanie Levitz is an Ottawa-based reporter covering federal politics for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @StephanieLevitz