A lack of a free COVID-19 rapid antigen test and few regional government regulations have turned the rapid test market into the “Wild West,” a Newfoundland and Labrador retailer says.
Paige Norman, owner of Travel Bug in downtown St. John’s, says she decided to sell the express tests at cost rather than make a profit from them because she thinks people shouldn’t pay for them at all.
Now that there’s a market for them, she said, the lack of regulation is “appalling.”
“People desperately need this simple tool, and because the government has decided not to hand it over to everyone who asks for it, people are clinging to the straw, trying to get to these tests,” Norman said. “I opened this kettle full of fish.”
CBC News reviewed several retail and online options for purchasing a quick test, and found that prices vary by store and county area.
Norman charges $10 for one and $42 for a package of five — their costs, including expenses to bring it in, such as shipping, she said.
Various retail outlets across the province sell multiple brands of rapid tests at different prices. Mary’s Mini Mart sells one quick test for $14.99 and two quick tests for $24.99, while Pipers sells one quick test for $14.99, plus taxes. A pharmacy in Happy Valley-Goose Bay charges $46 for two express tests.
Norman said finding a rapid test distributor was a difficult process — and she received no guidance from the government.
“I wanted to bring them in because people just want to be able to get access to a quick test. And then they want to have that ability to be able to, you know, make a judgment about their activities and who they’re going to see and not see.”
The NL government says it has “no control” over the sale of rapid tests
Newfoundland and Labrador is one of three provinces that does not widely distribute free rapid tests. Instead, the county distributes it to high-risk places, such as health care facilities, and to students and staff at schools. Residents who want a quick test and can’t get to it through those methods usually have to buy one in a store or online — and the county government says it has no say in what those stores charge.
“The government of Newfoundland and Labrador has no control over the retail sale of rapid antigen tests by vendors. Retail outlets selling rapid tests release their inventory and are not supplied with any tests from federal supply,” said a statement provided to CBC News by the vendors. Health department.
CBC News has requested an interview with Health Secretary John Hagee, but a spokesperson for her said he was not available.
Health Canada regulates the import and sale of COVID-19 testing devices in Canada, and it has a list of approved self-test devices on its website, but a public health expert says the provincial government should also have a role.
“They can certainly impose restrictions on price gouging, for example. It’s not really uncommon when there’s a crisis,” said Tara Moriarty, an infectious disease expert at the University of Toronto.
The federal government has distributed 140 million rapid tests among counties, and the county government said it had distributed 4,932,770 as of Tuesday, with 1.4 million tests remaining in storage. According to the county government, the federal government has indicated that it will provide more tests.
Affordability is a Barrier to Access: Moriarty
Moriarty said that although rapid tests don’t always detect early infection, they are helpful when taken multiple times.
“It is important for people to know when they should not be near other people, and when they can become infected,” she said.
Earlier this week, 34 community organizations and health care providers signed a letter calling on the county government to increase access to rapid testing, especially for people at risk and low-paid workers.
“We are aware of the concerns, and continue to work with partners and stakeholders as we monitor the COVID-19 situation in our county and adjust appropriately,” the Department of Health said in a statement in response.
In March, Chief Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Janice Fitzgerald, said public health was strategic by distributing rapid tests.
The county government is still offering free COVID-19 PCR tests in select circumstances, but patients who do not meet the criteria must get a rapid test. If they cannot access or afford a rapid test, they should self-isolate, even if they are not sure if they have COVID-19.
As of Friday, the government has not committed to increasing access to rapid tests.
Affordability is a “tremendous barrier” to accessing rapid tests in Newfoundland and Labrador, Moriarty said, and without increased access, some will choose not to take the test at all.
“We need to support things like rapid testing, making sure that people have the tools they need to prevent themselves from getting infected and to prevent transmission to others.”
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