The federal government is ramping up delivery of COVID-19 rapid tests as most regions tighten restrictions and many students are kept out of classrooms to try to slow the spread of the Omicron variant.
“We are closing in on two years of this pandemic and there have been moments of more intensity and moments of less, but I think everyone was hoping we would be in a much better place right now,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Wednesday during the first federal COVID-19 update of the new year.
“But here we find ourselves again in many parts of the country with lockdowns.”
Trudeau said he understands people are frustrated and feeling as though the country is back in the early months of the pandemic, despite more than a year of sacrifices and significant efforts.
In fact, Trudeau said, things are different. Canadians are practised in what needs to be done to slow the virus’s spread, vaccination rates are high and, now, there will be a significant supply of rapid tests delivered across the country.
“I think we all understand that rapid testing is going to be part of the path through it.”
Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos said 140 million tests will be distributed to provinces and territories on a per-capita basis this month. That’s four times the number delivered in December, he said, and would allow every Canadian to have one test per week for the month of January.
“January 2022 is not March 2020. We have made significant progress,” Duclos said.
In its December fiscal update, the government earmarked $1.7 billion to secure a supply of about 180 million rapid tests.
In a familiar routine now, Ontario reintroduced restrictions Wednesday. Restaurants, gyms, cinemas and other indoor venues were forced to close, while retail stores and personal care services were limited to half capacity. There were provincewide school closures and all non-urgent scheduled surgeries were halted.
Ontario reported 2,081 people in the hospital with COVID-19 and 288 patients in intensive care — up from 1,290 people in hospital the previous day.
Elsewhere, Quebec reported 39 more deaths and a rise of 158 hospitalizations.
Quebec Education Minister Jean-François Roberge said classes will resume on Jan. 17 as planned, but the province will distribute packages with five COVID-19 self-tests to all primary and secondary students in January and February as part of a plan to control infections in schools.
“Our schools are and will be safe,” he said.
The demands of the intensely infectious Omicron variant on public health has resulted in many regions in the country restricting molecular lab tests to prioritize high-risk people, including health workers.
That means there is no telling how many COVID-19 cases there truly are in Canada. Dr. Theresa Tam, chief public health officer, said officials are still monitoring the spread of the virus and public health can still track trends and identify community spread.
“We are doing more daily tests than any other period during this pandemic,” Tam said.
Several provinces have instructed those who have a positive result using a rapid test to assume they have been infected and to self-isolate. However, each province is distributing the rapid tests differently and not everyone has the same access.
Ontario’s pop-up model for rapid tests has been widely criticized for having long lines and not nearly enough supply. The situation has played out similarly in other provinces where there are significant delays to get results from lab tests, but no widespread way to get or purchase rapid tests.
Trudeau said, despite those concerns, distribution will remain up to provinces.
“We have to recognize the different regions in this country are facing very different situations.”
—Kelly Geraldine Malone and Laura Osman, The Canadian Press