Premier Doug Ford is cracking down on who can get a COVID-19 test as a rising number of infections leaves long lines at assessment centres and longer waits for lab results.
The priority is now on people with symptoms, anyone who’s had close contact with a confirmed case, and those contacted by their public health department or notified by the COVID Alert smartphone app, associate chief medical officer Dr. Barbara Yaffe said Thursday as the province reported 409 new infections and one more death.
“Your average person out there — who is not exposed to a case, is not part of an outbreak, has no symptoms — should not be going for tests. There’s no value,” Yaffe said.
“Back in the spring, this was our approach,” added Ontario Health chief executive Matthew Anderson. “We’re going back to that model.”
The new guidance does not apply to children who need a test to go back to school, people who need a test to visit family members in long-term care, or residents and staff in long-term care and other congregate living settings.
Ford said the province needs to be “nimble” in response to changing conditions.
“We have to focus on people that need a test,” he said, distinguishing them from “people that want a test just for getting a test, because they feel a little more comfortable.”
But an epidemiologist at Wilfrid Laurier University said the new strategy risks missing people carrying the virus without symptoms, including young adults who constitute the majority of those testing positive in recent weeks and often don’t show signs of infection.
“It could result in missing a whole load of cases slipping through the cracks,” said Todd Coleman, who previously worked as a public health official in Middlesex-London, where there has been an outbreak among Western University students this month.
The policy reversal was prompted by a surge in cases and global supply chain challenges in buying more lab equipment to process tests, with the province hoping to be able to increase lab capacity to handle 50,000 daily by early October, and eventually 100,000.
Nonpriority people need to stay out of testing lines to make sure hospitals and public health officials can get quicker results for patients in intensive care and people who may have been infected in outbreaks on the job or elsewhere, said Dr. Vanessa Allen, chief of medical microbiology at Public Health Ontario Laboratories.
“A very big part of this is an appeal to the public,” said Anderson, noting assessment centres will not be asked to “police” those in line to ensure they qualify for a test.
“When people come forward, we are asking all of the public to respect that this is what we need to do to protect the most vulnerable,” she said.
For the last few months, Ford and Health Minister Christine Elliott have urged anyone who wanted a test to get one. But with the return to school and a spike in cases, lines have become so long that some of the 151 assessment centres have had to turn people away.
About 60 pharmacies are slated to begin providing tests by appointment for asymptomatic people on Friday. Yaffe said Ontarians seeking tests so they can visit loved ones in nursing homes and similar settings can go to either an assessment centre or a pharmacy.
The abrupt move to “ration” testing shows the government is mired in “chaos,” said NDP Leader Andrea Horwath.
“I wouldn’t blame people at all if they’re completely confused,” she added.
The testing restrictions come as the government has been pilloried for days over the lack of a detailed plan to tackle a second wave of COVID-19.
It is set to unveil a blueprint to prepare for another onslaught of the virus, including measures aimed at specific trouble spots to avoid another lockdown.
“We are taking a targeted approach,” Yaffe confirmed Thursday.
Details in a draft document leaked to CBC News outline $2.2 billion in spending, and follow remarks from Elliott that the province is considering additional restrictive measures, which she and the premier have repeatedly refused to reveal.
Ford’s office has a COVID-19 infection in
A junior staff member in Ford’s office has tested positive for COVID-19, but the premier tweeted he had “no close contact or prolonged exposure” to the person and will monitor himself for symptoms.
Any staff members who had close contact with the infected person are self-isolating, the premier’s office said.
The new approach differs from the regional strategy in the spring and summer that was based on recommendations from the 34 local public heath units and affected entire regions, such as Toronto and Peel, which have been COVID-19 hot spots.
Toronto has 151 new cases, Peel has 46 and Ottawa has 82 in Ministry of Health figures released Thursday.
The draft obtained by the CBC, which senior government officials confirmed to the Star on Thursday is “an early version of the plan that is not complete.”
“If there is a resurgence of COVID-19, either locally or province-wide, targeted action may be taken to adjust or tighten public health measures,” the document says, according to CBC. Options include temporary closures of specific businesses or organizations and other restrictions.
The Ontario Hospital Association released a statement Thursday from 38 physicians and health experts in infectious diseases that called on Ford to impose restrictions on “non-essential businesses and activities” where the illness can spread more easily, such as through indoor service at restaurants and bars, night clubs, gyms and places of worship.
“Now is not the time for hesitancy,” said the letter, which was signed by Dr. Allison McGeer of Sinai Health and Dr. Irfan Dhalla, a vice-president and internist at St. Michael’s Hospital, among others.
Ford stressed that he wants “to avoid shutting down the economy as long as we possibly can,” but added that if there were to be a huge spike in COVID-19 cases, “everything’s on the table.”
The government’s leaked blueprint says there will be $90 million available to boost the wages of personal support workers, which Ford has repeatedly promised because they are “overworked and underpaid.”
Despite the leak, the entire plan was not released Thursday because the Tories are dribbling out “pillars” of it in order to maximize publicity for the efforts. On Tuesday, Ford touted the flu shot and on Wednesday he promoted efforts to have pharmacies conduct COVID-19 testing.
Rob Ferguson is a Toronto-based reporter covering Ontario politics for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @robferguson1
Robert Benzie is the Star’s Queen’s Park bureau chief and a reporter covering Ontario politics. Follow him on Twitter: @robertbenzie