Ontario has a new plan for COVID-19 testing. Here’s the good news and the bad news

OPINION: The province aims to expand coronavirus testing — and that’s a good thing. But the realities on the ground give cause for concern
By John Michael McGrath - Published on Apr 10, 2020
Premier Doug Ford discussed the province’s new COVID-19 testing plan at a Queen’s Park press conference on Friday. (CP24)

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Public-health officials have a new plan to expand COVID-19 testing in Ontario: the aim is to increase the current levels fourfold from roughly 4,000 today to approximately 16,000 by the first week of May. The plan has been presented to Premier Doug Ford and has been approved by cabinet.

The move comes days after Ford said the province’s current paltry level of testing was “absolutely unacceptable.” At a press conference at Queen’s Park on Friday, the premier praised the new plan, calling increased testing one of three policies — along with strict physical distancing and assuring supplies of necessary medical equipment — crucial to containing COVID-19.

“We have clearly seen that the jurisdictions that get these three things right are the ones that are staying ahead in this terrible fight,” Ford said. “The first step to winning any battle is knowing your enemy.”

Ontario is currently testing fewer people per capita than any other province in Canada, so the expanded ambitions count as good news.

There are at least two pieces of bad news, however. The first: the numbers presented by public-health officials in a technical briefing for reporters still add up to less testing than officials were hopeful of achieving only a few weeks ago. Minister of Health Christine Elliott told reporters on March 24 that the province was looking at increasing testing to 15,000 cases per day; Ontario now won’t hit that level until the end of April.

The second piece of bad news — which, in part, explains the first — is that Ontario’s level of testing is going to continue to be limited by supply shortages. Officials confirmed that the province has approximately 200,000 swabs for testing on hand now; increased testing levels mean that supply could be depleted before the end of the month.

Ontario is not alone in desperately trying to procure new supplies in the midst of a global shortage, and the provinces and the federal government are working to secure supplies from existing manufacturers while also developing local suppliers in Canada.

The province’s plan will not involve testing members of the general public who don’t have symptoms; Ontario’s capacity simply won’t allow for that kind of population-wide testing. Instead, Public Health Ontario will target its expanded efforts on current areas of concern, including long-term-care homes, hospitals, and remote and Indigenous communities. In the future, PHO wants to expand testing among essential workers and people with compromised immune systems and to conduct more surveillance testing in northern communities.

Instead of testing people without symptoms, the province is expanding the list of symptoms that qualify for COVID-19 testing: adults who have difficulty swallowing, a loss of smell or taste, or diarrhea or nausea will now potentially be eligible for testing; seniors may also be eligible if they have chills, delirium without other underlying causes, falls, or increased heart rate.

The final decision on whether to test a patient or not will be made by their doctor.

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