It’s the Ontario way: On rapid testing, the province says no, then yes

OPINION: Doug Ford is now promoting the Tories as the party of yes. But he only says yes after first saying no
By Matt Gurney - Published on Oct 05, 2021
Kieran Moore is the chief medical officer of health of Ontario. (Chris Young/CP)

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“Doug Ford, Yes Man.”

No, really. What a weird, weird few years it has been.

On Monday, as the provincial government rolled out its new throne speech and began trying to get itself on track for the coming election next spring, the Progressive Conservatives also rolled out a series of ads on broadcast media, touting Doug Ford’s apparently well-known affinity for saying yes. CTV’s Colin D’Mello has heard the ads (as yet, I haven’t) and wrote up a partial script from one of them. “I hear it all the time: politicians are famous for finding reasons to say no,” intones the voice of Ford. “That’s not me. I am Doug Ford, the leader of the Ontario PCs, and we are the party saying yes.”

Since when?! Has 2021 Doug Ford ever met 2018 Doug Ford, who won the job after having warned Ontarians that the NDP couldn’t be trusted, because they’d spend too much, and because Ontario couldn’t afford any more Liberal waste?

Well, whatever, that was then, this is now, and the pandemic has changed a lot. That’s fair. I shouldn’t mock, especially because we had a good-news announcement Tuesday, and I’ll get to it in a minute. But still. I think I speak on behalf of almost 15 million of my buddies when I note that when the words “Doug” and “Ford” are brought up in conversation, the first thought that springs to mind usually isn’t, “Ah, yes, the legendary facilitator.” The PC ads are true in their way, of course, because Ford usually does indeed say yes, but he usually says yes only after first saying no 47 times, in increasingly exasperated and bombastic tones. The yes, when it comes, is rushed, panicked, and late.

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Which brings us to Tuesday’s announcement!

Ontario will be rolling out rapid tests — which can be administered to one’s self or by a guardian to a child — in high-risk areas. The tests will be limited to school children or children in child-care centres who are not symptomatic, not vaccinated, and not close contacts with a confirmed case or outbreak. In other words, these rapid tests are going to be used to go hunting. Rather than being totally defensive, and testing only if and when there is reason to expect there is a COVID-19 outbreak, we’re going on the offensive, seeking out the virus to catch it and stamp it out via isolation periods, hopefully before it spreads farther in the close-quarter settings of schools and daycares. Kieran Moore, the province’s chief medical officer of health, stressed that these would be limited to high-risk areas. Stressed that repeatedly, in fact, which I found interesting for reasons I’ll explain in a minute.

This is good news. The aggressive use of rapid tests as a screening tool has always been a missing plank in our pandemic-management strategy, so much so that I wrote about it in my last column. Rationing available tests, and the laboratory processing capacity needed to analyze them, made sense during the initial months of the pandemic. But once rapid tests were available and affordable, the failure to roll them out massively was always strange. No system is perfect, and two obvious problems with rapid tests are that they are somewhat less accurate than lab-based PCR tests, and, of course, people with no or mild symptoms may choose to ignore a positive rapid test rather than suffer the hassle to their lives a period of isolation (for them or their children) would entail. I hope that would not mean many people, but it would certainly be some. 

But we should never let the perfect be the enemy of the good, and that’s especially true in the middle of a crisis that has already killed nearly 10,000 Ontarians. As recently as last week, as befits the PC habit of explicitly refusing to do a thing before agreeing to do the thing, Christine Elliott, the deputy premier and health minister, was insisting that using rapid tests for screening in daycares and schools wouldn’t be appropriate. But now it is. You know, because “Yes!” or something.

I suspect this is why Moore took such pains to stress that the asymptomatic testing of children would be limited to high-risk environments. This makes sense on the face of it but also gives the government some tiny bit of cover. “Well, it doesn’t make sense everywhere, but it’s worth trying in high-risk areas” isn’t much of a defence for a government that could have mandated what it announced Tuesday many months ago, before school had even resumed. But it’s marginally better than nothing. It’s not great, but “great” seems to be the only thing that hasn’t been on the oft-mentioned table during Ontario’s pandemic response.

And, despite my exasperation, this is good news. It is a welcome development. It will hopefully help prevent some outbreaks and allow Ontario to continue what seems to be — I hesitate to even say this — a better-than-expected fall for the province. So, yes, let’s celebrate today’s news. Tomorrow, we can get back to wondering what the hell took so long.

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