Ontario is now allowing asymptomatic people to be tested for COVID-19 said Doug Ford Sunday.
The premier delivered a televised statement from Queen's Park urging people to get tested if they think they may have been exposed to someone with the virus and promising they won't be turned away, even if they have no symptoms.
"If you are worried you have COVID-19, or that you’ve been exposed to someone who has COVID-19, even if you’re not showing symptoms, please go get a test. You will not be turned away," said Ford. "Let me reassure you, even if you or your family do not have symptoms, if you feel you need a test, you will be able to get a test. So please, don’t wait, our assessment centres are ready to receive you."
It marks a dramatic change in the province's testing policies. From the outset of the pandemic, only people referred by a health-care professional for a test could get one. Until recently, even people who weren't among certain high-risk groups, such as health-care workers, were not guaranteed to be tested even if they were showing symptoms of COVID-19 — it was left up to individual physicians to determine who could be safely told to go home and self-isolate, and who should be tested due to a higher risk of developing complications.
The province changed that policy just in time for the May long weekend, opening testing to all symptomatic people. However, since then the province's Chief Medical Officer of Health, Dr. David Williams, has said there has not been increased traffic to the province's assessment centres and he has questioned if officials should be clearer in their messaging.
And the premier's Sunday statement runs counter to consistent messaging from Williams and Association Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Barbara Yaffe, who have maintained there is little use in testing asymptomatic people.
“The bottom line is we don’t want to test people who don’t have symptoms,” Yaffe said earlier in the month. “If they are symptomatic they shouldn’t be going to work and they should be trying to get a test. But if they’re feeling fine and they’re using social distancing and hand washing and environmental cleaning then it shouldn’t be a problem.”
However, the province has been under increasing presser to increase its testing numbers. Having finished surveillance testing of the long-term care sector, the numbers of daily tests have dropped, with the province not using its full laboratory capacity. On Sunday, it announced just over 11,000 tests had been analyzed the day before, out of a capacity of about 20,000.
On Thursday, Ford signalled a change was coming.
"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," he said a press conference. "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?"
He also promised a new testing strategy would be announced next week — something he reiterated Sunday. He said it would include hotspots — geographic areas with many cases of COVID-19 — as well as testing of certain occupational groups, specifically truckers, autoworkers, food processing plant workers and taxi drivers.
Some experts have been calling for changes, warning about the asymptomatic transmission of the virus. They include Colin Furness, an epidemiologist and assistant professor at the Faculty of Information at the University of Toronto, who called for change in that direction recently on the QP Briefing podcast. 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."
But in the meantime, Ontario has seen a rise in cases in recent days.
On Friday, Williams said that the small "surge" may be due to positive cases coming in from the province's survey of long-term care homes, along with additional community cases. However, he also noted that the number of people going to assessment centres to be tested has not gone up since the province announced that anyone with symptoms can be tested, and the province is looking at some ways to clarify communication on that issue.
-with files from Sneh Duggal