I tried (and failed) to buy a rapid test so you don’t have to

OPINION: While the province says it deploys a million of the coveted tests each week, I had to shop online to find one
By Matt Gurney - Published on Dec 09, 2021
Widespread use of rapid COVID-19 tests could be an effective screening tool. (Frank Gunn/CP)



You may have heard a saying about my line of work. It's often attributed to Jonathan Foster, a British academic, who is reported to have said, "If someone says it’s raining, and another person says it’s dry, it’s not your job to quote them both. Your job is to look out of the [expletive] window and find out which is true." It's a snappy quote, and largely true. While life is sometimes more nuanced, and people can reasonably disagree based on objective evidence, as a ground rule for the job, it's a good one.

So today, I looked out the [expletive] window. Two of them actually. Here's what I saw.

This week, the Ontario government has been under pressure to release rapid COVID-19 test kits to a wider swath of the public — millions of these kits are available, but their use has been highly limited (this was a big part of my Monday column here at TVO.org). On Thursday, the Ontario COVID-19 Science Advisory Table advised the government to begin testing unvaccinated or partially vaccinated individuals in elementary schools and certain workplace settings, when the local case rate hits 35 per 100,000 people. In response, Doug Ford’s executive director of media relations noted on social media that the government is sending a million tests a week to "workplaces, hospitals, home and community care, and retirement homes,” as well as schools and childcare centres. The government says it will also offer rapid-testing pop-ups over the holidays and plans to send every student home with five kits to be used over the Christmas break.

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OK. But can I just buy some? And have them at home, like a thermometer, to break out when someone has a bit of a cough or something?

Sorta. But it ain’t simple.

As I argued Monday, the widespread use of rapid tests is a persistently bizarre omission from Ontario's COVID-19 management plan. Rapid tests are not as accurate as lab-based PCR tests, but they're accurate enough to be used in a screening role, or to rule out COVID-19 for a person showing some COVID-19 symptoms (which are, recall, often very similar to the symptoms of a more common respiratory virus). The holidays are approaching. People will be socializing. We'll also see more runny noses and coughs in the winter months. It made sense, I concluded, to just buy a couple handfuls of tests and keep them in a closet. And since I had some errands to run anyway, I thought I'd stick my head out that proverbial [expletive] window and just try to buy some.

No dice.

The first pharmacy I went to told me that I could absolutely buy some kits, but I'd have to register online, and I could only buy them for a small business. I don't want to do that, I told them. I just want to keep some in my house to use around the holidays. The pharmacist's shoulders slumped in defeat, giving me the distinct impression I was not the first person to ask. "We can't do that," she said. "All you can do is go online and register as a small business."

More on that in a minute.

Before I left, without testing kits, she whispered, "Hey, try the [other pharmacy chain]. They might sell you some." There was a location just a short jaunt down the road, so I moseyed on over to the rival pharmacy chain's location and was shot down there, too. "We don't sell the kits commercially," the pharmacist said. "At all. We don't do that." He offered to test me on the spot for $30, but I just thanked him and left. I have no symptoms and I'm not planning to travel, I explained as I withdrew. (The other pharmacist had also offered to test me on location.)

Twice spurned, I went home and visited the first pharmacy's website, to check out their small business program. There is a page on their website about such a program, but it's useless. The only option — repeated thrice on the page — is to click a link for more information, but the link is just an email address. I suppose the point is to email them about the program. In an era where virtually anything legal can be purchased online, not to mention a whack of illegal things (or so I've heard), this is a comically archaic service. It's especially funny because I do have a small business — two of them, in fact. Indeed, as a freelance journalist, I arguably am a small business. I suppose it's possible I could email the pharma giant and wait to hear back from someone there and then jump through the resulting hoops, but I just don't have the patience for that.

So, I went to a website a relative told me about, where rapid testing kits of every kind are available to anyone with a credit card. I ordered a bunch. Fifteen tests (three boxes of five) cost me $174.00, plus $24 in shipping, which, with HST, netted out to $223.22. Since I'm writing about this in a column — it's for work! — I'm going to write the damn things off. They should be here in a few days.

So, the good news, I guess, is that if you have $223.22 you can spare, and the time and computer literacy to go order these things online, you can get some. If you want to get them from your local pharmacy, just like you'd pick up some kitty litter or milk, you're out of luck. And while the Ontario government is putting these things out by the million, apparently, my 15 are coming from a website.

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