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’s got it, $20 can buy Angela Power of Placentia some bread, a carton of milk, a dozen eggs — some of the necessities.

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

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

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

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

Power, who says she has health problems that prevent her from working, gets help from income support.

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 out a one-time benefit of $200 to individuals receiving income support as part of the cost-of-living plan announced earlier this year. 

Retail outlets across Newfoundland and Labrador are selling multiple brands of rapid tests for different prices. (Mark Cumby/CBC)

 

The provincial government is distributing free tests to high-risk settings, like health-care facilities, and to students and school staff but not to the general public. 

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

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

“I said, ‘this is it?'” Power said. “One of my family members told me I should … give it back.”

Power said she wants to know why the provincial government gives free tests to children and their families but others are left paying for the tests.

“I am triple vaccinated, I did it all, so why do we have to pay for something children are getting for free?” she said. 

Test reserves 

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

He said the provincial government expects another COVID-19 wave in the fall and Public Health wants to make sure there is a reserve to use then.

He also said stockpiling the tests was recommended by suppliers based on the number the province receives versus how quickly it might 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 course of the time we’ve been getting them,” he said. 

“Everybody knows about the schools, obviously, but they do go to a variety of other places. There’s first responders, there’s corrections facility staff, there are congregate living and personal-care homes staff.”

Haggie said the Health Department is willing to look at what “might be sensible” summer when schools are closed for the summer. He said there have also been discussions with municipalities about their front-line workers.

“If you look at other jurisdictions, they have had significant challenges,” he said. “They’ve basically flung the doors open, they’ve handed out rapid tests, there have never been enough, they’ve found that they’ve not got a public health benefit from it and you’ve seen some of them roll it back.”

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

Ontario will continue to hand out free rapid tests at 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 make rapid tests free for everyone.

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

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

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