Roughly three million rapid COVID-19 tests are set to be distributed to Quebec Tuesday. At five tests per box, that means about 600,000 boxes will be available.
The Quebec government is giving the boxes away for free. However, it’s up to each pharmacy to decide how to distribute them.
For example, a spokesperson for Jean Coutu Group, one of the largest pharmacy chains in the province, says customers should consult the company’s website as distribution will vary between locations.
“Faced with significant demand in recent weeks, some pharmacy owners have adapted their way of doing things in order to better meet the expectations of their customers,” Catherine Latendresse said in an email.
“They are in the best position to determine the most efficient method of distribution to their customers. Some work by making an appointment online, others without an appointment.”
Aleck Brodeur, a pharmacist with a Familiprix location in Montreal, has been keeping his customers updated through social media and they went fast last month.
“The second we receive them, we post it on social media for the next day and there’s always a big line up, even an hour before opening,” he said. “Two hours after we’ve received them, it’s all gone.”
He expects much of the same this week.
For those residents who don’t manage to get a box this week, another 31.5 million tests are expected from Ottawa by the end of January. Quebec has a population of nearly 8.5 million people.
As of Dec. 20, all Quebecers 14 and older are eligible for one kit, containing five free tests, every 30 days. The rush for rapid tests is even greater now that the province has scaled back PCR testing for the general public.
The initial distribution rollout was marked by long queues and frustrated Quebecers, and further deliveries were slowed over the holidays.
The rapid antigen tests provide results within about 15 minutes.
Lise Bjerre, an epidemiologist and a chair in family medicine at the University of Ottawa, says if a rapid test is positive, it’s very likely the person has COVID-19.
Bjerre says the tests have an accuracy of around 97 or 98 per cent. But she says they’re like pregnancy tests, take one too early and the test will be negative.
With Omicron, she says scientists are finding there’s a much shorter incubation period in the body — between 1.5 and three days — unlike Delta, which had an incubation period of five to six days on average.
That means, in a very short period of time, there’s huge growth in a person’s viral load and less of a window for false negatives.
Quebec says you should only use a rapid test if you’re showing COVID symptoms. If you test positive, isolate. If you are negative, do another test 24 hours later. If that test is positive, keep isolating. Isolation time has been reduced to five days.
David Juncker, a biomedical engineering professor at McGill University, said Quebec should be making tests easier to get.
“If you want to reach as much people as possible, it should be as easy as possible,” he said, noting some residents may prefer to have the tests mailed to them.
“Having various options available would be a great way to reach more people.”
Though the rapid tests have been hard to get a hold of in the past, the worst is behind us, according to Benoît Morin, head of the Association québécoise des pharmaciens propriétaires, a group that represents pharmacist-owners.
But, he added, people still need to be patient as some pharmacies may be focusing distribution on more vulnerable clients at first. Eventually, the tests will be more readily available, he said.
“They will arrive gradually and in much larger quantities than what we had in December,” said Morin, and then worries about a lack of supplies will be “a thing of the past — a bit like what we experienced with masks.”