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Canada scrambles to rebook rapid test deliveries amid ban of Russian planes

Canada is rescheduling 11 planeloads of rapid tests this month
(Ethan Butterfield/NNSL photo)

Canada is rescheduling 11 planeloads of rapid tests this month that were due to be delivered via Russian cargo jets.

A Russian-owned cargo plane successfully delivered a shipment of tests to Canada Sunday morning at the Toronto Pearson International Airport.

Hours later Transport Minister Omar Alghabra announced Canada was closing its airspace to all Russian aircraft, effective immediately, in response to Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, and that plane remains grounded in Toronto.

Eleven more shipments of rapid tests were to be delivered this month on Russian planes but have all been cancelled.

A spokesman for Public Services and Procurement Minister Filomena Tassi says most have found new planes already, though the Russian planes can typically carry more and a small number of the deliveries have yet to find space on a cargo plane that can land in Canada.

Since January 1, 300 million rapid tests have been delivered to the federal government, which is buying them mainly on behalf of provincial governments.

Legislation to approve $2.5 billion in funding to Health Canada to buy and distribute the tests received royal assent Friday. That was on top of $1.7 billion approved in the fall fiscal update also for rapid tests.

Chief public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam said at her weekly briefing Friday that the easier access to rapid tests will help Canada in the event of another wave of COVID-19.

Early in the Omicron wave access to rapid tests became a massive problem, as infection rates soared and public health systems couldn’t keep up with demand for PCR tests in person.

That demand has now dropped along with infection rates, and Tam said that after months of high infection rates from Omicron and Canada’s high vaccination uptake, there are high levels of immunity to the variant across the country.

Because of testing limitations there is not yet good data on how many people got Omicron, she said. Since Omicron became the dominant variant in Canada in mid-December, 1.3 million cases were confirmed but only a small fraction of infections are now being recorded.

Ontario’s chief medical officer of health Dr. Kieran Moore said this week the actual number in his province is likely 10 times the reported figure.

“I do think that if it’s Omicron that’s circulating in the next month, we have a very good level of protection in the community, particularly with boosters protecting against severe outcomes,” Tam said. “But if there’s a variant that’s very different to Omicron, then that’s a different story and we will have to re-evaluate the risk of any vaccine-evasive variants.”

Tam said even if such a variant arrives, there are more treatment options for COVID-19, including the recently approved Paxlovid antiviral drug from Pfizer, as well as more access to rapid tests, a better understanding of the virus’s transmission, the benefits of good ventilation and easy access to masks.

She said with all of those measures “we’ve got to be able to go into the fall and winter season, or indeed the next wave if it should come in between, with much more ability to respond without those really severe restrictions. That is the goal.”

Tam did urge health systems to take the time they have now to invest in surge capacity so if another wave arrives, we don’t need to turn to drastic closures to keep hospitals from getting overwhelmed.

She said possibly reconsidering how we license international health professionals to help in Canada could come into play, as could finding efficiencies by using virtual care.

Tam also said face masks should be kept on hand as the first line of defence against COVID-19 even if they are not mandatory.

Alberta and Saskatchewan lifted mask mandates this week, with Manitoba following mid-month, Ontario possibly by month’s end and Quebec by the middle of April.

She said she personally will look at local infection rates and the risk to her or her family members from COVID-19 to determine when or if she will stop wearing a mask.

Infection rates have continued to fall this week, as have hospitalizations and the number of people in intensive care.

The number of hospitalized patients with COVID-19 peaked on Jan. 22 at 11,022, with 1,233 of them in intensive care. As of Feb. 28, there were 5,136 people in hospital with COVID-19, and 570 in intensive care. That’s down more than 15 per cent in the last week alone.

Tam said people can help avoid another serious wave by getting vaccinated. Public Health Canada data show that since vaccines became available in Canada, unvaccinated and partly vaccinated individuals accounted for 58 per cent of all cases and 75 per cent of all hospitalizations.

– Mia Rabson, The Canadian Press