Ontario plans to be able to run 5,000 COVID-19 tests a day by the end of this week and aims to perform almost 20,000 tests a day by April 17, provincial health officials say.
That’s a big step up from the roughly 2,500 tests Ontario has been processing each day. This is all part of a plan to both clear a massive testing backlog and to prepare for the expected strain on the system as the pandemic spreads in the province.
“In Ontario we have taken immediate and important steps to increase our provincial testing capacity,” said Helen Angus, Ontario’s deputy health minister and chair of the COVID-19 Command Table. She said partnerships with hospital and community laboratories will help ramp up capacity. By April 17, Angus said labs across Ontario will be performing 18,900 tests a day.
Instead of the majority of COVID-19 swab samples going to the provincial lab — as they now do — samples will be sent to private and hospital labs that have the capacity, starting immediately. Other geographical areas in the province, particularly the North, will have added capacity under the new plan.
Despite that increased capacity, there are no plans to test everyone who is sick.
“It is not feasible and it is not desirable,” said Dr. Barbara Yaffe, Ontario’s deputy chief medical officer of health. “I know people are worried and there is a lot of fear and concern out there and somehow getting a test result could make you feel better, but it may give you a false sense of security.”
Ontario is prioritizing health-care workers and others who by the nature of their job or where they live (residents and workers in nursing homes and homeless shelters as an example) are at risk of infection, and also the very sick who are hospitalized with severe respiratory symptoms. Others are encouraged to stay home, self-isolate, and if they develop severe respiratory symptoms, chest pains or extreme lethargy go to a hospital emergency.
And not everyone at the site of an outbreak needs to be tested, officials said. Using long-term-care facilities as an example, health officials who briefed the media Thursday said that if three people on a nursing home floor test positive, and others are sick on that floor, there is no need to test them as they are presumed to have the virus and will be treated as if they do.
As of Thursday morning, Ontario had increased its daily testing capacity to 2,439, although officials overstated that during the briefing, saying Ontario was currently at “3,000 to 4,000 tests a day.” Provincial data showed that as of Thursday morning the testing backlog — number of samples taken but not processed — was 10,965, a number that has been steadily growing but with a slower growth rate in the past few days.
Scientists are learning with each day’s experience. Officials at the briefing said the testing protocol and testing sensitivity has grown as scientists in Canada and around the world learn more and more about the novel coronavirus. “Lab tests are now so sensitive that even the smallest trace of COVID-19 can be detected,” Angus said.
Starting Thursday, Ontario is reallocating COVID-19 tests that would normally have been done at the Public Health Ontario laboratories to hospital and private labs. Angus said Ontario has had strong response from private labs that want to help out.
Officials reiterated Thursday that Ontario continues to prioritize health-care workers, people in long-term-care facilities and homeless shelters, patients hospitalized with severe respiratory symptoms, and people in “remote First Nations reserves,” and returning travellers with symptoms.
“We recognize that not everybody at this point can be tested quickly and not everybody really needs to be tested in terms of the clinical treatment they would get,” said Yaffe, the associate chief medical officer of health.
“The ones we are prioritizing are where there is an impact on a lot of other vulnerable people and so the result needs to be done quickly,” Yaffe said.
As to how many the province is missing due to this testing protocol, Yaffe said they do not know. “Many, many thousands of people” have used the province’s online assessment tool, she said.
“As we expand the number of tests we will have a better sense of the prevalence in the population,” said deputy health minister Angus.
Officials said doctors still have leeway to determine who will be tested, along with the provincial priorities.
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Matt Andersen, president and CEO of Ontario Health, said the province estimates it can add 4,000 additional completed tests each week, growing to a capacity of close to 20,000 by the middle of April.
A big concern provincial health officials have is Ontario residents returning from winter vacations. “There’s real concern about the snowbirds coming back and make sure we are looking at them and pulling out all the stops to get them to stay home” and self-isolate, said Angus.