While Ontarians were left empty-handed after hours spent waiting in line for free COVID-19 rapid antigen testing kits over the weekend, residents of Nova Scotia shared pictures on social media of bountiful test kit hauls gathered with ease.
The discrepancies in rapid testing availability between Canadian provinces have been met with frustration as Omicron cases surge and Christmas plans hang in the balance.
While residents of Ontario, B.C., Alberta and Quebec scramble to get their hands on rapid tests, those in Saskatchewan, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick boast of easy access with systems already in place.
“This is a huge misstep on the part of multiple jurisdictions,” Dr. Alex Wong, infectious disease physician and clinician-researcher with the Saskatchewan Health Authority, told Global News.
“[Governments] had millions of tests literally sitting in warehouses, and for whatever reason, didn’t decide to make this an important priority.”
Ontario rapid tests run out
Rapid antigen tests, which use a shallow nasal swab, are typically less reliable than the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test, but can deliver results in less than 15 minutes. They can be performed at home and used before a family gathering or large public events to help control transmission.
This is why they have been rolled out in certain provinces in schools and other public settings, as calls for them to be distributed for free Canada-wide grew louder.
Part II: Answering your Omicron questions
Last week, the Ontario government heeded that call, with the announcement of a “holiday testing blitz,” which pledged two million free rapid tests to be distributed through pop-up locations such as malls, retail settings, holiday markets, public libraries, transit hubs and LCBO stores.
New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Saskatchewan already had similar systems in place, while Alberta, Quebec and British Columbia vowed to follow suit.
However, many of the provincial rollouts have been met with long queues and inadequate supply.
By Friday evening, the day Ontario’s campaign began, LCBO’s test supply had already run out. An LCBO spokesperson said they distributed 200,000 tests over the course of the day and had not received any more.
Social media users shared photos of huge queues of people waiting for kits at other pop-up locations, with many stories ending with people waiting for hours only to be turned away as supply ran out.
On Monday, Torontonians reported line-ups hundreds of people long at the pop-up testing site at Union Station, which opened at 7 a.m. and was out of tests about half an hour later.
A spokesperson for the province said Ontario has “a limited supply of rapid tests” and had recently learned that “millions of tests expected to be received from the federal government have been delayed.”
“Every single test the province has received from the federal government is out the door to thousands of workplaces, hospitals, home and community care settings, long-term care homes, schools and child care centres on top of the many pop-up sites across the province,” the spokesperson said.
“Ontario is directly procuring additional rapid tests where possible, and we continue to urge the federal government to make more rapid tests available to provinces as quickly as possible.”
Queues in Alberta, B.C., Quebec
But Ontarians weren’t alone in their frustrations.
Quebec began its rapid-test rollout plan on Monday with people waiting in long lines at pharmacies throughout the province. Quebec has shipped the tests to pharmacies, who are responsible for giving them out. There are five tests in each kit, with one kit made available to each person aged 14-and-older every month.
In Alberta, the government on Friday distributed more than 157,000 rapid test kits, amid huge demand.
There were long lines at several sites Friday, with some Albertans reporting they were not able to get a kit, despite visiting multiple sites.
Alberta Health said there are two million more rapid tests on hand that will be distributed in the coming days, and another one million additional tests are set to be shipped later this month.
The rollout of rapid antigen test kits was announced by Premier Jason Kenney last week, as the province also announced eased COVID-19 public health restrictions ahead of the holidays.
In B.C., rapid tests are being prioritized for areas with higher transmission and outbreaks, rather than for the general population.
About 700,000 rapid tests are available for home use, but provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry has said it’s challenging to break down the large packages of testing fluid into smaller kits. She said B.C. hopes single-dose bottles of the testing solution arrive by the end of December.
Nova Scotia vows not to ‘keep tests on a shelf’
Meanwhile, frustrated residents unable to get their hands on testing kits have looked to other provinces with envy.
Nova Scotia has been handing out tests in public settings since early December. On Dec. 13, that was extended to public libraries across the province, with 400,000 kits available. However, as of Monday, all locations of Halifax Public Libraries had run out.
According to the province, between Dec. 10 and 16 about 66,992 home rapid tests were distributed at pop-up sites, 400,000 were distributed at libraries, and 167,000 were distributed to children in public school in pre-primary to Grade 6. An additional 60,000 tests were distributed to community partners for children aged three to 11 who are not in public school.
Incoming travellers at the airports in Sydney and Halifax airports are also being provided tests, and about 2,000 businesses and organizations in the province are providing rapid tests for employees.
More tests are also being handed out to children aged three to 11 through public and private schools, licensed and unlicensed child-care centres and family resource centres.
Dr. Lisa Barrett, an infectious disease specialist and a clinician at Dalhousie University in Halifax, who helped spearhead the early adoption of widespread rapid test use in the province, said Nova Scotia had focused on testing people who did not have COVID-19 symptoms.
“We have a no symptom testing stream, in addition to all of our other testing, that uses rapid tests to make sure we can identify people who might be infectious early,” Barrett said.
“The idea is that we do not keep rapid tests on a shelf that we make sure that we’re getting them out into the hands of Nova Scotians in various different ways to use for early diagnosis.”
COVID-19: N.S. doctor on the success of their rapid testing program amid Omicron variant spread
Barrett said the province had been constantly asking the federal government for more tests to ensure they had enough in stock to keep up their supply. But as stocks inevitably dried up, they would need to reassess how they were distributed.
“Every well has a bottom. And as people get more and more worried about Omicron, and about COVID, we do come to a point now where we’re going to have to figure out with the supply that we have, which is not infinite, how we manage the next piece.”
Eventually, it could mean those in high-risk settings are prioritized and people who are symptomatic should simply isolate and identify their contacts on the assumption that they are positive, rather than having to seek out a test.
While Barrett insisted rapid testing should be a priority for provincial governments, people should know that they “have other tools in the toolbox to keep them safe,” such as social distancing and being vaccinated, and “tests are just an additional layer of protection.”
‘No meaningful role for PCR tests’
Saskatchewan has been distributing free rapid tests for almost two months.
Wong said the province had successfully implemented the scheme after “a lot of initial hiccups.”
The province introduced the free testing in October as a way to avoid tougher restrictions in the face of the Delta variant, Wong said. While they were initially available at 18 chambers of commerce across the province, they were later distributed to a number of other public settings, such as libraries, police stations, co-ops and fire halls.
“So it’s really disappointing to see people waiting three, four hours for one box of five tests when I was able to go to the library yesterday with my family and get a couple of boxes,” he said.
Wong said the “philosophy around rapid testing has gradually shifted,” as PCR testing was prioritized as the more effective testing method. However, due to the current lack of PCR testing availability amid overwhelming demand, there was “no meaningful role for PCR tests for the general public.”
“We’re in a situation now … with the sheer number of cases of Omicron, the sheer number of contacts, that lab capacity just simply can’t keep up. People are waiting days to access PCR testing, which essentially makes it pretty much useless from a public health perspective for managing outbreaks,” he said.
“And the inability then for people to be able to identify their own situation using rapid tests is a huge downfall.”
New Brunswick has also continued its rollout of COVID-19 rapid test kits since they were first distributed across the province in October.
Public health set up 20 distribution centres around the province with kits available.
The province said 37,500 tests — 7,500 five-test kits for use over a 10-day period — were given out at the start of the rollout.
The province hasn’t said how many rapid test kits have been distributed in total since October, and Vitalité Health Network says the number of tests at each of the centres is limited and that some locations could be out of stock.
© 2021 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.
China’s international flight suspensions leave travellers stranded, hurt businesses
When Dwight Law’s father died in November, the Shanghai-based U.S. expat flew back to Kansas, leaving his wife and dog behind in China while he attended to matters relating to his father’s death.
Law, who runs an architecture and design firm, has lived in Shanghai for 20 years and had expected to return last week.
But with dozens of flights between China and the United States suspended by Chinese authorities because of passengers testing positive for COVID-19 on arrival, finding a flight back even in February is proving near-impossible and posing a threat to Law’s company.
“Now with no flights scheduled, I am currently locked out of China, away from my wife and family and not able to attend to business,” Law said. “I have 50 employees in China. Without my presence, the business will suffer and so will the livelihoods of each employee.”
Even before the latest flight cancellations, international capacity to and from China was running at just 2% of pre-COVID levels as the country sticks to a strict zero-COVID policy of stamping out all cases while other parts of world open up.
The zero-COVID mentality is likely to stay for most of 2022, Bank of America Securities analysts said in a note on Tuesday, in bad news for the 845,000 foreign passport holders in China, a number already reduced since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
China’s aviation regulator in January alone cancelled 143 return flights as the highly transmissible Omicron variant spreads across the globe, according to a report from Chinese aviation data provider flight master last Friday.
That was the most in a month since it introduced a policy of suspending flights when positive cases were found in June 2020.
The flight suspensions, which also include some services to Europe and other parts of Asia, are one of the biggest challenges faced by companies doing business in China, said a spokesperson for the Europe Chamber of Commerce in China.
“The recent cancellations send a clear message that China will not deviate from its current strategy,” the spokesperson said, referring to the zero-COVID policy.
Graphic: China’s international flight suspensions – https://graphics.reuters.com/CHINA-AVIATION/USA-FLIGHTS/lbvgnjerbpq/chart.png
China now requires passengers to have started costly COVID tests seven days before boarding in the departure city of their direct flight into China. That creates a headache for travellers like Law who are not based in U.S. cities with direct flights.
Tough travel policies in transit hubs for U.S.-China travellers like Taiwan, Korea and Japan also effectively rule out less costly indirect flights.
A Google Flights search by Reuters shows no flights from San Francisco to Shanghai are available for booking until late March at any price.
Jing Quan, minister of the Chinese embassy in the United States, said Beijing is working closely with the U.S. State Department to strike a balance on the number of commercial flights to China. Charter flights for Olympics athletes have not been affected, he said.
There has also been less of an impact on cargo. China Southern Airlines plans to fly its A380 superjumbos with cargo only from Los Angeles to Guangzhou, while carrying passengers in the other direction, it told the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT).
Hainan Airlines has received U.S. approvals for cargo-only flights using passenger planes and China Eastern is seeking a similar nod, according to DOT filings.
While that is a comfort to exporters, it provides little solace to stranded travellers like Law.
“COVID will not go away I am afraid. It is here to stay,” he said. “What’s China going to do, close its borders for the next five or 10 years while the world outside of China learns to manage, live and gain herd immunity? It’s nuts.”
(Reporting by Stella Qiu in Beijing and Jamie Freed in Sydney; additional reporting by Martin Pollard in Shanghai; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)
United Airlines cuts capacity forecast, flags cost pressure on Omicron turmoil
United Airlines Holdings on Wednesday trimmed its capacity forecast and warned of higher costs, after posting a smaller-than-expected fourth-quarter loss, citing turbulence from the Omicron coronavirus variant.
The Chicago-based carrier said the latest wave of the health crisis has depressed near-term demand even as bookings for the spring and beyond remain strong.
United said its priority is to match capacity with demand. As a result, its 2022 capacity is now projected to be lower than in 2019, instead of growing 5% as estimated earlier.
It expects to restore 82% to 84% of pre-pandemic capacity in the quarter through March, with revenue recovering to just 75% to 80% of 2019 levels.
Costs this year are now expected to be higher than in 2019, instead of going down.
United’s shares declined about 2.5% to $43.31 in extended trading.
Rival Delta Air Lines last week forecast a current-quarter loss due to the Omicron variant’s impact on travel.
Winter storms and an increase in COVID-19 infections among employees have led to mass flight cancellations. In one day alone, nearly one-third of United’s workforce at Newark Liberty International Airport called in sick. Last week, the carrier said 3,000 employees were infected with the virus.
In response, carriers have cut their flight schedules and are offering crew members not scheduled to work incentives to pick up additional shifts and trips.
To ease staffing issues, United is offering its pilots premium pay through the end of the month.
The incentives and flight cancellations are further inflating industry costs, which have gone up in the past year with efforts to ramp up operations.
United estimated current-quarter costs to be 14% to 15% higher than in the same period in 2019.
Analysts at Jefferies said cost pressures are expected to be a “significant headwind” for the carrier.
United said its Boeing 777-200 planes equipped with Pratt & Whitney (PW) engines would begin to return to service in the current quarter.
It had to ground the wide-body jets after a United flight to Honolulu suffered an engine failure and made an emergency landing last year in Denver.
On an adjusted basis, the carrier reported a loss of $1.60 per share for the quarter through December, compared with a loss of $7.00 per share a year ago. Analysts surveyed by Refinitiv, on average, had expected a quarterly loss of $2.11 per share.
Fourth-quarter revenue came in at $8.19 billion, compared with $3.4 billion a year ago, beating the consensus estimate of $7.97 billion.
United will discuss the results on a call with analysts and investors on Thursday morning.
(Reporting by Rajesh Kumar Singh; Editing by Richard Chang)
World Bank chief takes swipe at Microsoft’s $69 billion gaming deal as poor countries struggle
World Bank President David Malpass on Wednesday criticized Microsoft’s $69 billion takeover of gaming developer Activision Blizzard as a questionable allocation of capital at a time when poor countries are struggling to restructure debts and fight COVID-19 and poverty.
Malpass said during a Peterson Institute for International Economics virtual event that more capital needed to flow into poor countries, but these flows have been disrupted by unusually easy monetary policies in developed countries.
He said he was struck by the scale of Microsoft’s acquisition deal for “Call of Duty” maker Activision Blizzard. This dwarfed the $23.5 billion in cash contributions agreed in December by wealthier donor countries to the International Development Association, the World Bank’s fund for the poorest countries — about $8 billion annually over three years, he said.
“You have to wonder: ‘Wait a minute, is this the best allocation of capital?'” Malpass said of the Microsoft deal. “This goes to the bond market. You know, a huge amount of (capital) flows are going to the bond market.”
A very small portion of the developing world has access to such bond financing, while too much capital remains bottled up in advanced countries, especially in central bank reserve assets used to back long-term bond purchases, he added.
A spokesperson for Microsoft did not immediately respond to a Reuters request for comment on Malpass’ remarks.
His comments echoed a similar call last week for central banks to cut long term bond holdings to free up lending capital.
“That gets you into a situation where a huge amount of the capital is being allocated to already capital-intensive parts of the world — the advanced economies — building more and more on top of already heavily built infrastructure and real estate, for example,” Malpass said.
Meanwhile, a return to more normal global investment returns is needed to bring more financing capacity to small businesses in the developing world,” he said.
“In order to address the refugee flow, that malnutrition that’s going on, and so on, there has to be more money and growth flowing into the developing countries,” Malpass added.
(Reporting by David Lawder; Editing by David Gregorio and Sandra Maler)
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