Premier Doug Ford voiced his frustration over the province's below-target coronavirus testing levels on Thursday, saying he wants to see "mass testing" across the province that includes truck drivers, auto-sector workers and those working in food-processing plants.
"I want to see people being tested," Ford said at a media availability at Queen's Park, adding that COVID-19 assessment centres "don't seem to see the traffic" and encouraging people to go and get tested. Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. David Williams said during a press briefing on Wednesday that some have faced barriers to testing, such as being unable to access centres or unsure of where to go, and that officials are trying to remove any such barriers.
"I want to see truckers tested, I want to see taxi drivers tested...the long-term care, we can’t just test everyone and walk away, we’re going to be testing all long-term care once again, the frontline health care workers, we want to go into areas of the automotive (sector) and start testing people...I want to see food-processing plants being tested, that’s what I want and I’m confident it’s going to happen," said Ford.
The premier said he's spoken with officials at the province's COVID-19 command table about the "mass testing" that he'd like to see.
"There’s a difference between what I want and what’s going to happen and hopefully it’s going to happen, because I have the confidence in public health, I have confidence in Ontario Health," he said. "I’m pushing the table as hard as I can; is it frustrating? It’s frustrating."
Ford said he's been told that testing groups like truck drivers, for example, is feasible and that public health officials are "coming up with a plan," which he expects to get more information on next week.
"I’ll be like an 800-pound gorilla on their backs every single day if I have to until I see these numbers go up," he said.
The province reported that 10,506 tests were processed on Wednesday, with a backlog of 5,051 tests. That's up from the 7,382 COVID-19 tests processed on Tuesday, but far short of the province's lab capacity for 20,000 tests and the government's own testing target.
The provincial government initially set a target of 18,900 tests a day by April 17, but that goal was changed to 16,000 tests a day by May 6.
On May 14 the province expanded its testing criteria to include anyone with COVID-19-related symptoms.
"We can’t just be testing people with symptoms, we have to start going to the broader public and start testing as many people as possible, asymptomatic people," said Ford. "Until we do that we can’t get our hands around the whole system — how do we know how many asymptomatic people are out there right now?"
Ford's comments on Thursday echo calls from many epidemiologists and health-care experts about the need to expand testing in Ontario.
Colin Furness, an epidemiologist and assistant professor at the Faculty of Information at the University of Toronto, told the QP Briefing podcast on May 14 — the same day Ford announced the province would enter Stage 1 of reopening on May 19 — that Ontario wasn't doing enough in the way of testing.
"We should be, could be, but aren’t doing the kinds of strategic testing in the community to try and gauge where the virus is, where it’s going, how it moves," Furness said.
He said Ontario needed to move away from "the standard approach of waiting until someone looks really sick" before they're tested.
"We need to stop looking at people who are very sick and start going where the risk is, and the risks are occupations, for example, where you have a lot of people contact, I would think taxi drivers, bus drivers, grocery store clerks, police officers," he said. "We’re not doing anything to protect them, they’re getting sick and then of course they’re making their customers or their clients sick and we haven’t done anything in that direction."
Dr. Barbara Yaffe, associate medical officer of health, said on Wednesday that she thinks it's important to do sentinel testing, but that health officials are still trying to work out which groups that should include. The province has been testing all long-term care residents and staff in recent weeks and is moving to do the same in other congregate care settings like retirement homes and groups homes.
On Thursday, Ford also said that when non-emergency child-care centres and schools reopen, he'd also like to see all staff and teachers, but not necessarily children, tested.
"We want to test as many people as possible, especially anyone around children," said Ford.
Williams explained that the idea of focusing on staff rather than children is because the incidence of COVID-19 in children is "very low." Plus, there are a number of other factors involved in the routine testing of children including parental consent and presence and having the staff needed to perform the tests. Staff working at child care centres currently offering emergency services for frontline workers have been tested, Williams said.
The premier also pointed to the importance of testing as the economy is reopening.
"When we open up the economy even more...to give people confidence there has to be more testing and we’re going to need the support of the people in the hotspots," he said, noting there are certain regions that are "glowing on the map like a lit up Christmas tree" but not naming any specific areas.
The Greater Toronto Area currently accounts for nearly 64 per cent of the COVID-19 cases in Ontario, with Toronto and the York and Peel regions seeing some of the highest number of cases.
"We know those areas, and those are the areas we bring in a mobile testing van and we’ll just start testing people in those certain areas," Ford said. "I’m obsessed with this testing. As you can tell, I’m a little wound up today because I want to see the testing, simple."
The lack of testing is also a consideration when it comes to the COVID-19 case numbers, according to Ford.
On Thursday, the province reported 413 new cases of COVID-19 — an increase of 1.7 per cent from the previous report. The three days prior have seen increases of 1.7 per cent, 1.9 per cent and 1.3 per cent — increases that both Ford and Health Minister Christine Elliott said would be difficult to attribute to the reopening of the economy, but that the premier called concerning given the low level of testing taking place.
"The testing actually, the numbers haven’t been there, so that’s concerning," he said. "I'd understand it if we were testing 25,000 people or 20,000 and the numbers creep up and per capita it’s down, but that’s not the case right now so it’s concerning."
Ford repeated his message from Wednesday that he wouldn't hesitate to "roll things back" when it comes to reopening the economy if the cases continue to go up.
Elliott said while case numbers have gone up, it hasn't been "a huge increase," and what they're looking for is an overall downward trend.
"We will be watching this very closely as we get into next week where we’re really going to start to see what the effect is on public health from the changes that have happened as a result of Stage 1...and that will influence where we go from there," she said.
The premier has stated his frustration with testing numbers on a few occasions, which Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner noting this in a statement.
“It feels like Groundhog Day every time the premier complains about low testing numbers," Schreiner said. "The premier must tell us why he felt confident pushing Ontario into Stage 1 reopening when our testing system simply wasn’t ready."
He said the "plan for random and asymptomatic testing should have been announced before Stage 1," and that the province should be "maximizing our testing capacity on health care workers, food service workers, Uber drivers and crowded workplaces."
Photo Credit: Andrew Francis Wallace/Toronto Star