Government unveils new, broader testing plan in bid to turn corner on numbers

Government unveils new, broader testing plan in bid to turn corner on numbers

The provincial government announced a new testing strategy as it looks to turn the corner on an issue that has dogged it throughout the pandemic.

Health officials laid out a multi-month plan that will see mobile units dispatched to coronavirus hot spots, the testing of asymptomatic individuals who may have come into contact with the virus, and a phased list of industry sectors that will be priorities for testing.

Health officials stressed that the plan isn't static and they will adapt it as they receive more evidence. "We need to learn from each testing phase," CEO of Ontario Health Matthew Anderson.

The goals of testing will be to identify cases, conduct contact tracing, and inform communities, he added.

Ontario has so far struggled with its testing. Although health officials and Premier Doug Ford repeatedly said that testing is an important component to fighting the virus, the government has failed multiple times to meet its stated benchmarks.

The past two days showed some progress, however, as the province did over 18,000 daily tests with a capacity of 20,000 tests.

In rolling out today's testing strategy health officials and the premier declined to state any specific numbers for testing goals, a departure from past practice. And while the premier sharply criticized the lack of tests in the past, on Friday he sung the praises of health officials, indicating that they're on the same page.

"We are working around the clock to get more people tested in the province," the premier assured the public in his daily availability, referring to an "army" of 2,000 contact tracers. But he also stressed that more needs to be done. "We need to keep increasing that capacity," the premier said. "Getting those testing numbers up is absolutely essential."

With the broadened criteria for testing there should be additional demand throughout the province. Ontario currently has 131 assessment centres in the province and 20 labs that process the tests. The new guidelines, announced by the premier last weekend, state that anyone who has at least one coronavirus symptom or is asymptomatic but concerned they might have COVID-19 can be tested.

Additionally, testing will be available as of next week for people in congregate settings like select correctional facilities and shelters, as well workers at select hospitals, long-term care employees and agri-food business workers. School boards will also distribute educational material on testing next week, according to the plan. People in retirement homes and who work at LCBO outlets will also be able to get tested.

Testing will be supplemented in areas that have high amounts of cases with mobile units, such as vans. Areas with high rates of infections currently include Toronto and Peel.

A variety of other workplaces will later be considered for testing. Those include people who work in: supply chains, manufacturing, transport services, construction, resources and energy, sports and media, among other industries.

Testing was initially limited and people with moderate symptoms were told to stay home and to self-isolate.

The province is still in the "find and contain" stage of pandemic testing. The plan foresees a shift to post-peak "monitoring and screening" in June and July, and then "ongoing suppression" from August onwards.

While the plan only lays out this week and next week for detailed actions, health officials indicated it will be available on a four-week rolling basis in the future.

Health officials acknowledged that one major benchmark they are working toward is to build up testing capacity and strategy in time for the fall. That's when the next regular flu season will strike, adding increased pressure on the health care system. Officials said that they are unsure about what testing capacity they'll be able to achieve by then, and are working on that issue.

The NDP panned the government for taking so long to come up with this strategy, and added that it is short on details and measurable targets.

"Testing in Ontario has been woefully inadequate from the beginning of this pandemic. It should never have taken this long to get a coherent community testing strategy on the table," said Opposition Leader Andrea Horwath. "Today we’ve seen more commitments, but what Ontarians need is action, concrete timelines and much higher testing numbers."

Green Leader Mike Schreiner said welcomed the expanded testing strategy, but said he remains concerned about outbreaks in plants and warehouses, and that public health requires more resources. "I urge the premier to increase funding to public health units so they have the capacity to contact trace, as we roll out the testing strategy."

David Hains

QP Briefing Reporter

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