TORONTO — Select Ontario pharmacies began offering COVID-19 tests on Friday but confusion over how to book one and who qualified for the assessments saw several people turned away.
The province announced the appointment-only tests for certain asymptomatic individuals earlier this week, saying they would help ease the burden on busy assessment centres.
But only certain individuals — such as those with loved ones in long-term care homes, close contacts of a known case or high-risk workers — are eligible to get the tests offered at up to 60 locations.
Laura Smith said she didn’t realize pharmacy testing was for certain people and by appointment only.
She showed up at a Shoppers Drug Mart at 8 a.m. after being notified of a possible exposure by the COVID Alert app, but was turned away.
“I didn’t see where to schedule so I came by,” said Smith, who said it was her first time trying to get tested.
“Now I know,” she said with a shrug, adding that she planned to head to an assessment centre to wait in line.
The launch of pharmacy screening came a day after the provincial government changed its guidelines around who can get a test.
Premier Doug Ford had previously said anyone who wanted a test could get one but announced Thursday that those without symptoms should stay away from the testing sites, with some exceptions.
That means some asymptomatic people who want reassurance they don’t have the virus will not have access to testing offered by the province.
Sam White, who also showed up at a pharmacy without an appointment, said he had been seeking peace of mind before travelling to the United Kingdom.
“It’s still pretty confusing,” White said. “Because I’m travelling I do want to know, because I don’t want to be infecting anyone else.”
At the same pharmacy, Afifa Faisal said she was turned away from booking a test for her four-year-old son because he was too young to get one at a pharmacy.
“I’m glad they have pharmacies for COVID testing — I just wish that they had clarified it was for kids five and over,” she said, adding that staff told her the wait-list had already grown to more than 500 people.
Health Minister Christine Elliott said Friday the government knew it would take time for the public to fully understand the changes to testing criteria. She noted the eligibility requirements around pharmacy testing were to ensure priority groups could have quick access to tests.
“I know there has been some confusion,” she said. “We want to make sure that people who absolutely need to be tested, who are asymptomatic, can go quickly to receive their test.”
Chris Hayes was among those who had been able to book an appointment for a pharmacy test and got one Friday morning.
He said he happened to call the pharmacy during the first hour that they started booking tests and called his experience seamless.
“The more people that can get tested … the better,” Hayes said.
John Papastergiou, a pharmacy owner at a Shoppers Drug Mart in Toronto, said his team was prepared for logistical issues.
“We’re trying to use an appointment model so we don’t have people congregating at the pharmacy. That’s very important,” he said.
“We’re emphasizing that this is for asymptomatic patients that need to be pre-screened. You can’t just drop in.”
He said the swabs that pharmacies deploy for the tests are particularly easy for staff to use. The testing swab most Ontarians are familiar with goes deep into the nose, but the ones pharmacies use only touch closer to the end of the nostrils.
“It’s a much, much simpler swab to administer, more comfortable on the patient and easier to do in the pharmacy as well,” said Papastergiou.
Ontario reported 409 new cases of COVID-19 Friday, and one new death related to the virus.