Ontario has been completing fewer tests for the novel coronavirus over the past week – just 2,930 on Tuesday. This is well short of the 19,000 daily tests the province said it would be completing by mid-April and is raising concerns health officials aren’t capturing the full spread of the virus.
The latest Health Canada data for Ontario shows the 2,930 new tests are less than 20 per cent of the total daily testing capacity in the province of over 13,000. It’s also just over half the daily target of 5,000 that the government promised to target for the first week of April.
And although Ontario has tested over 82,000 people, the province continues to face widespread criticism for lagging behind all other provinces in testing.
As of Monday, Ontario had completed 510 tests for every 100,000 residents. Alberta has done nearly 1,500 tests per 100,000 while B.C. has done 950 tests per 100,000.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford said Wednesday afternoon that his “patience was running thin” with the low amount of testing in the province, calling it “unacceptable.”
“There are no more excuses for why we are testing 3,000 a day. We need to see 13,000 people tested every single day moving forward,” Ford said, adding that health-care workers in long-term care facilities should be prioritized.
“We are going forward on a rapid fashion to make sure every single person possible can get tested,” he said. “After our front-line health-care workers and first-responders, we need to be testing everyone.”
Experts say they are concerned not just by the falling test numbers, but also by the rising proportion of positive tests in the province, which jumped up to a daily record of around 13 per cent on Tuesday. Quebec, which has recently ramped up testing, has a positive rate of over 17 per cent.
The World Health Organization and epidemiologists say jurisdictions should be aiming for a positive test rate of roughly 10 per cent to ensure officials are getting the most accurate picture of the spread of the virus and not missing cases.
“Given that we’ve got this ongoing community spread, we need to be testing aggressively and not just restricting it to those hospitalized patients who are sick, and hospital staff,” Peter Phillips, a professor in infectious diseases at the University of British Columbia, told Global News in a recent interview.
“If we don’t know where it is out there, we can’t contain it.”
Anna Banerji, an infectious disease specialist and associate professor at the University of Toronto’s faculty of medicine, said there could be “many people” who may have had COVID-19 who haven’t been tested.
Banerji said the lower test rates could also be attributed to people being discouraged from getting tested after the province shifted its strategy.
Ontario is now giving priority for testing to hospital patients and health-care workers.
“Testing is limited right now to certain higher-risk groups,” she said. “There are many, many people out there that have had coronavirus either mildly or asymptomatic that haven’t been tested.”
On Wednesday, Ontario reported its largest daily increase with 550 new cases of COVID-19, bringing the total number of cases in the province to 5,276, including 174 deaths and 2,074 recoveries. The province also reduced its massive backlog of tests from over 10,000 last week to just over 1,000.
Ford said he would be on the testing issue like “a dog on a bone.”
“What are we going to do moving? We are going to make sure more people are tested,” he said.
Isaac Bogoch, an infectious diseases specialist at the University Health Network, welcomed Ford’s change in tone and said the lack of testing was “inexcusable” as COVID-19 infections continued to rise.
“How do you know your curve is being flattened? How do you know how well you’re doing if you can’t see what you’re fighting,” he said. “This data is extremely helpful to get a granular picture of what is happening.”
Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliott told reporters Tuesday afternoon her government was looking to lessen any restrictions that are in place with regards to testing protocols for vulnerable populations — like those in long-term care homes and at assessment centres.
“We are looking at the current situation. We are increasing our testing, particularly in areas that are most vulnerable,” Elliott said. “We have developed a strategy in order to be able to increase that testing there.”
Ontario’s NDP called on the Ford government Wednesday to immediately test more people for COVID-19.
“We need to expand testing so we have a clear picture on how widespread COVID-19 is in the province,” NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said in a statement. “Ontario needs to do literally everything possible to protect our health care heroes, first responders and vulnerable seniors.”
Dr. Barbara Yaffe, Ontario’s associate chief medical officer of health, said Monday that officials are currently reassessing the testing criteria to allow more people to be tested, but said the testing strategy needs to avoid ending up with another backlog.
“Now that the testing capacity has gone up, we want to expand who is tested but in a way that is controlled so we don’t end up with a backlog,” she told reporters.
“We know we can expand, we just have to come up with specific groups and how to do it and that will be communicated out very quickly. In the meantime, the assessment are aware that there is increased capacity and we are certainly saying if you are concerned about this person, please do test them.”
-Data analysis from Global News’ Patrick Cain