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Canada's COVID testing crisis

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Thanks to the omicron variant, Canada is recording COVID-19 case numbers many times higher than in any other point in the pandemic. Demand for testing has so overwhelmed capacity in some parts of the country, reporter Emma Jacobs tells us, that some provinces have stopped offering laboratory testing to the general public.

EMMA JACOBS, BYLINE: Every day, Olivier Drouin gets questions from other parents trying to figure out the province of Quebec's latest policies for COVID-19 isolation or testing.

OLIVIER DROUIN: Yes, every day in real time.

JACOBS: He's not a doctor. He's just a dad of two teenage daughters who created a website back in 2020 to track COVID cases in schools. It got popular, so people come to him for advice. In recent weeks, he's getting asked a lot about how to get at-home rapid tests.

DROUIN: Families are not able to get tests right now. There's, I would say, an inequity or disadvantage in terms of people with low income. Families cannot get access to them. People with high income purchase them on the internet at a high price, and even those are sold out.

JACOBS: And lab tests are no longer an option for most. The Quebec government announced this week it will reserve PCR testing for people with symptoms who are at high risk or in high-risk settings, like hospitals and nursing homes. Ontario's chief medical officer of health, Dr. Kieran Moore, delivered a similar announcement last week about PCR tests.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KIERAN MOORE: This is a finite capacity. I don't think anywhere in the world expected the transmissibility of omicron. And we have to use that finite capacity to best protect Ontarians.

JACOBS: Both provinces have said individuals with symptoms who can't get tested should assume they're positive and self-isolate, along with the rest of their household. Epidemiologist Dr. Catherine Hankins co-chairs a task force of researchers and public health professionals advising Canada's federal and provincial governments. She says it makes sense to limit PCR testing amid a global shortage in supplies. But she notes another problem. Many provinces have been unable to provide people with enough rapid tests.

CATHERINE HANKINS: And they were not deploying them. And so when it came time to do so and to do so rapidly, they didn't necessarily have in place mechanisms to make them available to people quickly.

JACOBS: Canadian federal ministers say deliveries of rapid tests to provinces will ramp up this month, enough for everyone to take once a week. But without general laboratory testing, Hankins says health officials will need other ways to assess progress in containing the virus.

HANKINS: We need to be thinking about what are the indicators to track.

JACOBS: As well as putting in place other layers of protection in settings like schools. She's a big fan of N95 masks.

HANKINS: Some of the people who I was giving Christmas presents for got a box of these.

JACOBS: Already, Olivier Drouin, creator of the Quebec School case-tracking website, has added a section for people to self-report rapid tests. The provincial government plans to launch a platform next week. However, Drouin says, many parents are still anxious about the shift to rapid tests, whether they'll be accepted by employers and insurers and even whether they'll get enough tests.

DROUIN: People want to do the right thing. They want to be good citizens. They want to know if what they're doing is going to help prevent contamination to their family members, colleagues, neighbors.

JACOBS: But there's a lot of confusion right now, he says, amid so many changes, and so more questions in his inbox. For NPR News, I'm Emma Jacobs in Montreal. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.