Groceries or COVID-19 tests? Critics say the cost of rapid tests puts them out of reach for some

Angela Power holds up the $20 bill for the rapid test she bought at a pharmacy in Placentia. (Meg Roberts/CBC)

If she has it, $20 can buy Angela Power of Placentia bread, a carton of milk, a dozen eggs — just some of the necessities.

If she doesn’t, she has to rely on food banks and the generosity of her family and friends.

But she just had to spend $20 on a rapid COVID-19 test because she doesn’t have kids who can take a free kit home from school.

For working people, $20 might not be a big deal, Power said.

“$20 might mean nothing to them. It means the world to me,” she said.

Power, who says he has health problems that prevent him from working, is on income assistance.

She said the only reason she could afford to buy a rapid test in the first place was because the Newfoundland and Labrador government gave a one-time $200 benefit to people receiving income support in part of the cost of living plan announced earlier. This year.

Outlets in Newfoundland and Labrador sell several brands of rapid tests at different prices. (Mark Cumby/CBC)

The provincial government distributes free tests to high-risk settings, such as health care facilities, as well as students and school staff, but not the general public.

So Power dipped into that $200 to buy the test. She said she had been extremely careful during the pandemic and thought it would be wise to have rapid tests on hand in case she started to feel sick.

When the cashier at the pharmacy told her the box cost $20.69, she thought she was doing several tests. Instead, it was just one.

“I said, ‘is that it?'” Power said. “A member of my family told me that I should… give it back.”

Power said she wanted to know why the provincial government offers free tests to children and their families, but others pay for the tests.

“I’m triple vaccinated, I’ve done everything, so why do we have to pay for something the kids get for free?” she says.

Trial Reserves

Health Minister John Haggie said this week that the province has a “modest but fixed supply” of rapid tests from the federal government.

He said the provincial government expects another wave of COVID-19 in the fall and public health wants to make sure there is a supply to use at that time.

He also said stockpiling the tests was recommended by providers based on the number the province receives versus how quickly it could use them in the event of an outbreak or series of outbreaks.

“The vast majority, I think something north of five million, have been dispersed over the period we have them,” he said.

“Everyone knows the schools, obviously, but they go to a variety of other places. There’s first responders, there’s correctional facility staff, there’s nursing home and nursing home staff. personal care.”

Haggie said the Department of Health is ready to consider what “might be reasonable” in the summer when schools are closed for the summer. He said there have also been discussions with municipalities about their frontline workers.

“If you look at other jurisdictions, they’ve had significant challenges,” he said. “They basically opened the doors, they handed out rapid tests, there was never enough of them, they found they weren’t getting any public health benefit from it and you saw some of them throw it back.”

Newfoundland and Labrador is one of three provinces that does not widely distribute rapid tests for free.

Ontario will continue to distribute free rapid tests in grocery stores, pharmacies, schools, hospitals and retirement homes until at least July 31.

Open letter response

Last week, 34 community groups and health care providers in Newfoundland and Labrador, led by the St. John’s Status of Women Council, signed a letter to the government asking health officials to return rapid tests free for all.

The council said a number of people had contacted them about not being able to afford the tests, despite needing them. The group also said it had received a response from the government and will update the public next week.

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