Jennie Stevens MPP, St. Catharines

Government of Ontario

COVID-19 test kit distribution described as ‘publicity stunt’

Published on December 17, 2021

Long line ups formed at LCBO locations as people scrambled to get test kits

Gail Riihimaki said she managed to get her kit of five rapid antigen tests, but described the process as “appalling.”

She estimates she was one of as many as 70 people who stood in line to pick up a COVID-19 rapid antigen test kit at the LCBO at the Fairview Mall, Friday morning.

The location was one of two LCBOs in St. Catharines that received tests kits for distribution — the only locations in all of Niagara to receive them.

After learning about plans to distribute free test kits through LCBO stores, Riihimaki said she logged on to the province’s website listing locations where they would be available in the hopes of getting one.

Like many, she’s concerned about the Omicron variant and at least having a way to ensure people close to her don’t have it offers another level of protection.

“With the Omicron, it’s scary that even those of us that are taking all reasonable precautions — like limiting our social circle to only those who are fully vaccinated, masking indoors unless we’re with friends who are vaccinated — it’s still being transmitted,” she said. “The level of transmission is (at least) three times more than Delta. It’s frightening to all of us.”

But after checking the website several times she said there were no listings in the Niagara area.

Finally, she saw a social media post by St. Catharines MPP Jennie Stevens saying kits would be available at two LCBO locations and rushed over, arriving at about 9:15 a.m. By that time, she said there was already a long line ahead of her.

“The people in line also had heard it on the radio and through the media, word-of-mouth,” she said, adding even LCBO workers she spoke with didn’t know in advance when the kits would be arriving.

Riihimaki is retired and has time to wait, but she said others didn’t have that luxury.

She said the crowd cheered as the truck pulled up at about 9:40 am., and the tests started being distributed about 10 minutes later.

But the jubilation didn’t last long.

Staff at Stevens’ office said only four boxes of test kits were distributed to each of the two LCBOs, and they were gone within about two hours.

“To me it felt like another publicity stunt,” she said. “The number of kits were so small given Niagara’s population and the magnitude of transmission.”

The decision to use LCBO locations to distribute them also didn’t make much sense.

“Is that the population that needs them the most?” she asked, adding the library may have been a better spot for it.

She said the people who were able to get a kit were also in a position to spend their morning standing in line, with the resources to find out about them.

“Besides the fact that the numbers were insignificant, were the individuals who got the tests those that would benefit our community the most?” Riihimaki asked.

The Ministry of Health said in an email the two St. Catharines LCBOs were among 100 stores province wide that received the kits, to be distributed on a first-come, first-served basis.

But it fell far short of expectations for Niagara Falls MPPs Wayne Gates, as well as Stevens.

Gates issued a statement Friday afternoon describing the roll-out of the test kits, as well as the expansion of booster shots “one of the biggest messes yet.”

“How can the province be so far behind on this?” he asked.

“We’ve been telling (Premier Doug) Ford to release rapid tests to the public for weeks and when he finally does it, only two locations across Niagara get them. To make matters worse, they were gone almost instantly — there were no tests available in cities like Niagara Falls or Grimsby. We need more rapid tests available, and we need them in cities across Niagara, not just one city.”

Stevens wrote a letter to Health Minister Christine Elliott Friday, asking her to immediately expedite and improve the rapid antigen test roll out across Niagara and Ontario.

“It is concerning that your plan appears to have been thrown together last minute, and does not equitably address the needs of my community,” she said adding Niagara has the third highest concentration of seniors in Canada.

“If there is a place that needs a plan for broad access to COVID-19 testing as we face the highly contagious Omicron variant, it is Niagara,” she wrote.