Federal Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos says Canada is in crisis when it comes to COVID-19 PCR testing capacity, as Ottawa struggles to make good on its promise to deliver 140 million rapid tests to provinces by the end of the month.

Access to PCR molecular testing, which is considered the gold standard when it comes to confirming a COVID-19 diagnosis, is in a crisis across the country, Duclos said Wednesday.

Many provinces have decided to restrict molecular PCR testing to individuals who are at a higher risk of being hospitalized from COVID-19 or are in settings where the virus could spread more quickly.

Duclos said that is why at-home rapid antigen tests have become a crucial tool in this fifth wave of the pandemic, which has been driven by the more transmissible Omicron variant.

It has caused provincial case counts to soar, overwhelmed testing sites and has prompted doctors to warn that hospitals are being pushed to the brink.

Last week, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised the Liberal government would send provinces 140 million rapid tests. That would be four times the number of rapid tests the federal government provided in December — enough for every Canadian to have one a week — and they are to be distributed on a per-capita basis.

But as residents wait for testing, some provinces have flagged that shipments have been slow to arrive.

In Ontario, 4.6 million of the 54 million tests earmarked for the province by Ottawa have arrived, with another 7.8 million set for delivery. There is no such schedule for the remaining 42 million promised tests.

Manitoba Health says it's been told by Ottawa the province is allotted five million tests a month. A recent shipping notice confirmed it would get a total of 700,000 devices for January. It has already received 132,000.

Provinces clamour for #RapidTests while feds struggle to deliver millions promised. #CDNPoli #Covid19 #OmicronVariant

"The premier and prime minister also had discussions in December and again this week, in which the premier stressed the need for additional rapid tests for Manitoba," says a statement from the department.

The B.C. Ministry of Health says the province has asked for more than 19 million tests from Ottawa and "there is no confirmation from the federal government about when they will arrive."

Federal Procurement Minister Filomena Tassi says the provinces' demand for the tests has increased drastically since last year, while the market has become very competitive.

"There are issues with respect to the supply chain. And those deal with issues of labour, issues of accessing raw materials, and also the cargo planes and getting transportation," she said during Wednesday's federal COVID-19 briefing in Ottawa.

She says the government is working with 14 suppliers to secure the tests that were promised by the end of the month.

“We're going to continue to work with suppliers to ensure if there are things, logistics, that we can assist with as a federal government, we are there to help those suppliers every step of the way.”

The United States promised Wednesday to increase the availability of rapid tests to schools by providing five million each month. To University of Windsor professor Anne Snowdon, who studies health-systems and supply chains, rapid test kits are the latest product to soar to the top of global demand in the pandemic.

Underpinning the problem is the underdevelopment of the health-care supply chain and lack of domestic manufacturing, she said, adding Canada is at a competitive disadvantage compared to larger markets like the U.S., as countries race to find suppliers.

"Now we're in this chaotic transition of finding, and trying to find, any supplier you can in the world that might have what you need."

Alberta Health Minister Jason Copping tweeted Wednesday his province has yet to receive a firm delivery schedule for the around 16 million rapid tests promised by Ottawa for January, and like others, is dealing with delays.

So far, he said only 500,000 have arrived.

Saskatchewan, meanwhile, reported Wednesday 525,499 of the 4.3 million allotted for the month had arrived, with another 2.3 million scheduled for delivery.

In Nova Scotia, a government spokeswoman says it has received 700,000 of the 3.6 million rapid tests Ottawa promised to provide this month, with the remainder set to arrive over the next two weeks "if shipping and logistical timelines remain on track."

Prince Edward Island's Department of Health says it asked for its full share of 560,000 tests this month, and has been sent 80,000. Another 290,500 are scheduled for delivery.

The federal Liberals have repeatedly said that only vaccinations, rather than rapid tests, will get Canada through the pandemic. Trudeau reiterated that point Wednesday as he criticized Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole for saying those who remain unvaccinated should be allowed to take rapid tests, rather than lose their jobs or be put on leave, under mandatory vaccination policies.

For their part, Tories say Trudeau has failed to provide enough rapid tests and personal protective equipment to provinces, forcing many of them to bring back restrictive public health measures. Better access to these tools would have helped manage the spread, they argue.

"They have failed. Again," tweeted Conservative health critic Luc Berthold Wednesday.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 12, 2022.

Keep reading