Not So Rapid Testing

3 minute read

As Canada grapples with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, lockdown restrictions and a lag in vaccine arrivals and distribution, it appears certain provinces are sitting on piles of unused rapid testing kits. These are the same kits that premiers, and some opposition MPs, were pleading for a few short months ago for use by both front line workers, and as a helpful tool to help keep kids in the classroom. 

Last week, CBC revealed that millions of these tests may in fact be gathering dust. This has compounded an already tense federal-provincial dynamic. Prime Minister Trudeau is exhibiting increasing frustration towards his provincial counterparts, having himself endured weeks of political heat over delays in vaccine procurement, which is a federal responsibility. 

Intergovernmental dynamics are difficult to manage at the best of times, but strained relations have been exacerbated over the past year due to the pandemic and bickering over respective responsibility in Canada’s pandemic response. Given the complicated nature of federal and provincial jurisdiction over the key factors in containing the spread of the virus, finger pointing isn’t all that surprising.

On the federal side, Health Canada has responsibility for approval of testsvaccines and therapeuticsmanaging the border; and, perhaps top of the list for Canadians, the procurement of vaccines. On the other hand, the provinces are responsible for the delivery of COVID-19 testing programs, medical care and vaccine distribution. It is also provincial governments that determine what regions, businesses and schools can remain open and at what capacity. 

The federal government has also been doling out billions of dollars and materials to the provinces and territories, including the safe restart funding, and of course these rapid testing kits. It is understandable that the Prime Minister would express frustration over tests sitting idle months after the premiers demanded the federal government step up approval and delivery of rapid COVID-19 testing devices.

The Prime Minister has been urging provinces to not let the rapid tests expire. During a roundtable with healthcare workers last week the Prime Minister said that if rapid tests forCOVID-19 continue to sit on shelves across the country, Ottawa may just start sending them directly to pharmacies.

Politicians and medical experts alike agree that an effective strategy for testing, contact tracing and isolation remains critical while the mass vaccination program ramps up. This has become all the more important with highly transmissible COVID-19 variants now confirmed in all ten provinces.   

Of course the amount of rapid tests used – or unused – differs across the provinces, with some provinces like Alberta expanding their testing capacity for oil sand workers and long-term caregivers. Testing programs have evolved as a patchwork approach across the country, presenting another challenge in Canada’s pandemic response as pressure mounts to get more vaccines into Canada and into the arms of Canadians. Although the divide between federal and provincial jurisdictions is clear to decision-makers, the delineation is less clear to Canadians who want life to go back to some semblance of normal. Politicians are no strangers to the blame game, and recent polling demonstrates how vulnerable our elected leaders are on the issue of their management of the COVID-19 pandemic. We are essentially a year into this pandemic, and most Canadians are still in some form of lockdown. Canadians don’t care who gets the credit and who gets the blame – they  want to see their elected leaders collaborate on an effective pandemic response. When the tools that have been made available to fight COVID-19 are not being used to their full capacity, patience wears thin and frustration takes over. With our largest shipments of vaccines now starting to arrive, the pressure may shift back on the provinces to demonstrate they’ve used the lag time effectively to prepare for rapid deployment.

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