#onpoli newsletter: Ontario restricts testing again

"We’re probably about to see the hammer come down on many of the freedoms we currently enjoy"
By Steve Paikin and John Michael McGrath - Published on Oct 06, 2020
A young family walks past a storefront on Bloor Street in Toronto (CP/Rachel Verbin)

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Hello, #onpoli people: 

As schools opened and fall weather took hold, Ontario’s COVID-19 testing strategy fell apart. Assessment centres were overrun and the testing backlog ballooned. Now, the province is once again restricting access to testing. Podcast hosts Steve Paikin and John Michael McGrath discuss the policy changes — and how private companies have joined the conversation. 

The second wave

Steve Paikin: Well, John Michael, there seems little doubt that we’re in the midst of the so-called second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, we’re probably about to see the hammer come down on many of the freedoms we currently enjoy. I see Toronto’s chief medical officer of health, Eileen de Villa, has already urged the province to further restrict the restaurant and bar sector. She’s also suggested closing down indoor sporting activities such as health clubs, and perhaps hockey arenas. We’re still waiting for the provincial government to respond to this request. Meanwhile, I wonder if we should look into where we’re at with testing. Yes, the testing capability is up significantly — I remember when we could barely do 20,000 tests a day and now we’re at double that number. But we’ve also got a heckuva backlog in getting results out and we’re apparently not close to getting that saliva test, which promises near-instant results. What else are you hearing on testing?  

John Michael McGrath: The reasonably good news is that last week the feds announced Health Canada has finally approved a new, faster testing method for use in Canada — the kind of machine that doesn’t need a lab technician to operate and can produce results in 15 minutes. But that doesn’t solve the immediate problem Ontario faces: the province ran up a huge backlog of untested samples last week and testing capacity didn’t grow as quickly over the summer as promised. So, on Friday, the government announced that instead of walk-in testing the province’s assessment centres would move to appointment-only service. Even that is only starting today in many places, and the last walk-ins were served Sunday: giving the province all of Monday to plow through as much of the backlog as possible. That comes after the province had already restricted testing only to symptomatic individuals or asymptomatic people with higher risk levels. If all this sounds like we’re back to rationing tests, well, we are.

Skipping the line 

Steve: And this raises a terrific question that strikes at the heart of our single-payer system: should you be able to buy your way to the front of the testing line? I ask the question because we’ve now seen our first private clinic come forward offering testing for those who are prepared to pony up a couple of hundred dollars to avoid the long waits. The clinic says that, given the cost of the procedure, it’s only making a modest profit on the deal. But most Canadians have an aversion to the idea that better, faster health care can be bought, because it strikes at the heart of our notions of fairness and equity in health care. Proponents of private testing argue that if you shorten the current testing lineups by removing a chunk of people who are prepared to pay for faster treatment, what’s the harm? It’s a great debate which now has its own COVID-19 angle.

John Michael: And it came up at question period on Monday, when health minister Christine Elliott assured MPPs that the government is doing what it can to make sure that these private clinics aren’t cannibalizing public resources — that they aren’t, for example, consuming swabs that were originally purchased by the government for the public system. It will undoubtedly be the kind of thing the government has to watch throughout the pandemic. Those rapid tests that Health Canada approved last week can be purchased by private clinics just as surely as they can be bought by governments (though one imagines the federal government is at the front of the line. Or at least, one hopes!) 

A president and a virus

Donald Trump
U.S. President Donald Trump waves to his supports from a motorcade outside Walter Reed Medical Center (Yuri Gripas/ABACAPRESS.COM)

And while it’s not, strictly speaking, Ontario politics, I suppose we can’t let the newsletter go this week without addressing some of last week’s news from Washington, D.C. A President who has consistently downplayed the risk of COVID-19 and mocked public health measures such as face masks has caught the coronavirus and was hospitalized over the weekend. I don’t wish for anyone’s illness in this difficult time, but this doesn’t even rise to the level of irony. It’s just exactly the danger that public health professionals have warned about. It’s so predictable it wouldn’t even be interesting except for the main characters. 

Steve: Let me share your hopes that the president, his wife, all his advisers, and all those senators recover quickly and well. They are lucky inasmuch as their irresponsible behavior may have caught up with them, but they are getting absolutely first-class treatment from whole teams of doctors — and access to drugs that the average person surely would not get. I note that New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman recently said that he wishes good health for the president, but even more importantly, he wishes for wisdom. He’d like to see Donald Trump come to a new realization about the value of following safety protocols. I suspect we all would.

Just a reminder...

You can listen to the latest episode of #onpoli here.  

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