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'Nobody has any:' Newmarket residents struggle to get their hands on free rapid tests

Reminiscent of toilet paper hoarding at the onset of the pandemic, the limited access to rapid tests has brought out both the best and worst in the community, resident says
20211229 covid rapid response test kit turl
A COVID rapid response test kit

Kim Ravizza doesn't want a rapid-antigen test for herself but so her mother's many nieces, nephews and grandchildren can "come see their granny before she passes."

Ravizza's mother is in the final stages of her struggle with stage 4 cancer and to ensure her safety, only those with a negative COVID-19 test result are permitted to visit.  But like so many in Newmarket, Ravizza can't get her hands on one.  

With PCR testing being restricted to high-risk cases, the at-home rapid tests have become a hot commodity with federal Conservative Party Leader Erin O'Toole taking to Facebook Live to compare the clamour to get one with the Hunger Games film.

In December, the province announced distribution of free rapid tests — five tests per box — at pop-up locations across the province, including at LCBO and shopping malls. Its model and limited supply was widely criticized with Ontarians lining up for hours in the cold to get one.

At Upper Canada Mall in Newmarket, the queue regularly went around the building with some waiting as long as two hours.

Ravizza said she heard about the pop-up distribution at the mall but there was no way she could leave her mother to stand in line for hours.

Pam Walmsley didn't stand in line because she didn't need a test at the time, but heard from neighbours that some who did were given multiple boxes, despite the government statement that each family would be limited to one box only.

"Boxes and boxes of them and now they're hoarding them. We know of people sitting on tests and aren't sharing just in case they need them," she said.

"The ministry has clearly communicated" the one box limit, said Ministry of Health spokesperson Alexandra Hilkene in an email.

According to the Ministry of Health's provincial testing strategy update, released Jan. 6, 54.3 million tests were deployed to 53,730 sites. Of those, 99 per cent have been used, while 380,000 remain in inventory as of Jan. 3.

Only 1.2 million were distributed at pop-up sites, leaving many scrambling to obtain them.

Last week, Walmsley's 19 year-old-son had a close contact with someone who tested positive. He couldn't return to work without a negative test result and according to Walmsley, her son's boss couldn't provide him with one.

At the same time, her 18-year-old son began having symptoms.

Walmsley called every pharmacy listed on the government's website but couldn't find a test.

"Nobody has any. No one has any right now. No pharmacy in Newmarket, Aurora or Bradford had any."

Walmsley was willing to buy a test online but the one online retailer she could find claiming to have them in stock was charging $175, she said, so she decided against it.

"I was like, that's ridiculous, if it's going to cost me that much, I can't afford that," she said.

Walmsley said she wasn't sure whether it was legal or not to sell the government-distributed tests but she would have gladly paid if only she could find someone willing to sell at a reasonable price.

In December, posts to online sites advertised tests prompted the province to crack down on price gouging and the illegal selling of the free tests.  

"It is deplorable to see bad actors reselling test kits provided free of charge by the provincial government, said Ross Romano, minister of Government and Consumer Services, in an open letter to online retailers Dec. 23." We are proactively working to identify, track down, and fine any businesses and individuals who may be in breach of our government’s emergency order which prohibits charging unfair prices for necessary goods."

"I just would really like some tests and I'm willing to pay for them. I don't care if it's legal or not," said Walmsley.

In a last-ditch effort, Walmsley posted to a Newmarket Facebook group asking if anyone had extra tests. Almost immediately she received a reply and two free tests. (Her eldest son tested negative, while her younger son tested positive.)

In caring for her mother, Ravizza lives in a bubble and wasn't aware she could purchase the test from an independent retailer online, she said. Before Christmas she pre-booked appointments for her son and his girlfriend to be tested on-site at Shoppers Drug Mart.

"It was bad enough paying the $40 (each) for the test at Shoppers for my son and his girlfriend to come and see (my mother) before Christmas. I don't even know if that's an option anymore. It's been a while since I looked. My mom has really taken a turn for the worse and I've just been totally focused on her. "

Better than having individuals stand in long lines, the province should have distributed tests through an online ordering and home delivery system, the same way she buys groceries, so those who can't stand in the line can still access the tests, said Ravizza.  

Both Ravizza and Walmsley liken the demand for tests to the toilet paper shortage seen at the onset of the pandemic.

Walmsley said the situation has brought out both the best and worst in people and has given her an appreciation for her neighbours and community.

"You've got the people who are hoarding and capitalizing on it and all that but then you've also got a bunch of people that are like 'you know what, let's support the community, I have an extra'."

At a Jan. 5.COVID-19 media briefing, federal Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos said 140 million tests are set to be distributed to provinces and territories on a per-capita basis, ensuring every Canadian will have access to one test per week in January.

To see the schedule for upcoming pop-up locations, visit