TORONTO — An Ontario program that distributes free rapid tests for COVID-19 at grocery stores and pharmacies will end after this month.
The Ministry of Health wrote in a memo to the retailers recently that the rapid antigen test program will wind down as of June 30.
"With the lower rates of COVID-19, high vaccination rates, and demand for RAT consistently decreasing, the province will be winding down its RAT programs on June 30, 2023," the memo said.
"As a result, distribution of free RATs through the program will end and any agreements with your organization with respect to the program will expire."
A spokesperson for Health Minister Sylvia Jones said that demand from the retailers last June was 3.9 million tests a week, and this month it is expected to be about 325,000 tests per week.
The ministry is encouraging grocery stores and pharmacies to place final orders by June 16.
However, the ministry said free rapid tests will still be distributed in some "high priority" communities through organizations such as community health centres and Ontario Health Teams until Dec. 31.
Those communities were identified in December 2020 based on high COVID-19 rates and low testing rates and include many Greater Toronto Area regions such as Brampton, parts of Mississauga, east Toronto and York Region, as well as Windsor and central Ottawa.
NDP health critic France Gelinas said the tests should continue to be available to people who need them, and there are vulnerable people across the province.
"Ontarians need to continue to have access to rapid antigen tests," she said. "Do we need them in every pharmacy in the numbers that we had before? Probably not. But do they need to be available to every community? Yes."
Online retailers are still selling rapid tests, but not everyone who wants them will be able to afford them, said Gelinas, who represents the Sudbury, Ont.-area riding of Nickel Belt.
"They do exist and you are able to buy them on the market, but for the communities that I represent, for northern and rural communities, the price of them will be prohibitive," she said.
Liberal health critic Adil Shamji said Ontario is facing another summer of temporary ER closures and worsening access to primary care, so the government should be making it easier for people to stay safe and healthy.
"If they are going to wind down the RAT program in the midst of low rates of COVID-19, they must do so with plans to ensure equitable testing access for future outbreaks and during upcoming respiratory seasons," he said in a written statement.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 9, 2023.
Allison Jones, The Canadian Press