Safety Concerns Surrounding Symptomatic COVID-19 Testing at Ontario Pharmacies Prompt Calls for At-Home Tests

Covid Test Pharmacy

Physicians and the public at large have criticized the Ontario government for bringing symptomatic COVID-19 testing to pharmacies, where customers — including seniors and the immunocompromised — may risk exposure to the virus as they fill their prescriptions. Photo: Fat Camera/Getty Images

It’s been several weeks since people with symptoms of COVID-19 have been able to get tested for the virus at select pharmacies in Ontario. And while the neighbourhood drugstore may be a convenient location for getting a COVID-19 test, it would also seem to be a convenient place, under the circumstances, to pick up the virus.

Inviting people experiencing symptoms of COVID-19 into a drugstore where they can mingle with other people, including seniors, at the pharmacy counter doesn’t just seem like a bad idea. It also seems like a disaster in the making, especially with the new, even more infectious Omicron variant already surging in the province.

Bill Comeau, a statistician, pandemic data provider and indefatigable tweeter about all things COVID, sarcastically describes the pharmacy symptomatic testing initiative as “such an elegant plan. The beauty of it is that the higher the infection rates in a community, the more risks seniors and vulnerable people will be at in pharmacies where they need meds.”

Even The Beaverton, the satirical Canadian publication, chimed in with a fake news report about symptomatic COVID-19 tests inside Shoppers Drug Mart stores: “the pharmacy giant has announced that every shopper who contracts COVID will get 500 free Optimum points.

Dr. Amit Arya, a palliative care physician, didn’t resort to sarcasm or satire. He tweeted, “So people with COVID symptoms, who can spread a virus that is airborne, will go to a pharmacy where there are people with weak immune systems & unvaccinated children. Insanity.”

What’s really strange about the pharmacy testing arrangement announced by the Ontario government in mid-November is that, except for being encouraged to stop by the neighbourhood drugstore to get tested, people experiencing symptoms of COVID-19 are otherwise told, in no uncertain terms, to isolate and stay away from other people.

Rexall pharmacies, for one, refused to take part in in-store COVID testing at their pharmacies. But those, like Shoppers Drug Mart and others, that are offering testing are making an attempt to keep people with symptoms separate from the people stopping by for prescriptions or toothpaste. They require appointments booked in advance online with no walk-in testing available. As well, the testing takes place in a private space within the pharmacies with a HEPA air purifier, and with full PPE for staff conducting the tests. People with symptoms are asked to wear a mask at all times, to arrive only at the time of the scheduled test and to leave the pharmacy immediately after testing.

But you’d need a traffic cop — or a couple of burly bouncers — to enforce even a modicum of safety.

Even so, “without capacity limits and ventilation standards,” says Dr. Nathan Stall, a geriatrician at Mount Sinai Hospital, “this seems like a sure-fire way to infect others and cause outbreaks.”

Alternatives are drive-through testing and separate, stand-alone sites.

“I personally feel it’s unwise to put older adults and other immunocompromised Ontarians who require medications, flu shots and/or other goods from Shoppers Drug Mart at increased risk for exposure to COVID-19,” says sociologist Dr. Vivian Stamatopoulos, a high-profile advocate for seniors during the pandemic and recipient of Chatelaine’s Doris Anderson Award. “I believe such testing should be diverted to separate, specialized testing centres and this is increasingly obvious in the current landscape of rising cases and Omicron.”

What critics are also saying now is that instead of neighbourhood drugstores offering symptomatic testing, rapid antigen tests (RAT) should be freely and widely distributed for use at home, with follow-ups if necessary, at separate public testing centres, such as the the Sunnybrook COVID-19 Assessment Centre, for people whose RAT tests are positive.

As such, a new Twitter hashtag, #Freetherats, is gaining momentum this week.

“What a strange country we are. There are literally millions of rapid tests sitting in storage & we need to beg provincial authorities to let individuals have access to them,” tweeted Dr. Leyla Asadi, an Alberta infectious disease physician, using the #Freetherats hashtag.

Meanwhile, a petition, started Monday by Ontario registered nurse Birgit Umaigba, urges, “Provide free COVID-19 Rapid Antigen Tests to every household in Ontario.”

“That Ontario is once again resorting to begging and social media shaming,” Ottawa physician Dr. Yoni Freedhof tweeted, “for the government to do something obviously beneficial and long since necessary — making rapid testing readily and freely available — is par for our far-worse-than-it-had-to-be pandemic course. #Freetherats.”