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Mayor Ed Holder appeals to province over dire need for expanded COVID-19 testing

Click to play video 'Coronavirus testing expanding to Ontario pharmacies' Coronavirus testing expanding to Ontario pharmacies
Executive vice-president and chief pharmacy officer with the Ontario Pharmacists Association Allan Malek speaks about how pharmacies in the province are preparing to start COVID-19 testing for people not experiencing symptoms.

The mayor of London, Ont., is issuing a direct plea to the province, calling for “the urgent expansion of COVID-19 testing to pharmacies” in the region.

On Wednesday, Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliott and Premier Doug Ford unveiled details of a plan to have pharmacies offer testing as part of the province’s fall preparedness plan.

Read more: Ontario announces COVID-19 testing to be expanded to pharmacies

Starting Friday, people with no symptoms of the coronavirus can visit up to 60 pharmacies in Toronto, Ottawa, Brampton, Mississauga, Markham and Huntsville by appointment only for free testing.

The government says more pharmacy locations will make testing available in the coming weeks, but Mayor Ed Holder says the need in London is urgent.

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Holder called the premier’s office on Thursday to request that testing at pharmacies be expanded to London as soon as possible.

“Londoners simply need more options. Our two primary assessment centres, at Oakridge and Carling Heights, are regularly at capacity within a few hours of opening, and satellite testing facilities on campus at Fanshawe and Western are extremely limited.”

Holder’s appeal comes as, for the first time, both of London’s COVID-19 assessment centres reached capacity before noon.

 

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Holder also pointed to a recent increase in cases, noting that 83 cases were recorded in the region between Sept. 12 and 24 compared to just 14 between Aug. 30 and Sept. 11.

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“Given the recent surge in cases locally, along with students of all ages heading back to school, Londoners are understandably concerned,” said Holder.

The region is on track to exceed its one-week testing record by end of day Sunday, he added, breaking the previous record set just a week earlier when nearly 4,700 people were tested.

Read more: Coronavirus — bump in cases ‘not surprising’ as London, Ont. prepares for second wave

While pharmacy testing will be offered only to people who aren’t experiencing symptoms of the virus, it’s believed it would decrease the burden on COVID-19 assessment centres in London.

Mike McMahon, executive director of Thames Valley Family Health Team, which operates the assessment centres, told Global News there’s no raw data on how many people are arriving at the sites without any symptoms, but they believe about a third of the visitors are not presenting symptoms.

“Feels like a third of the folks that are visiting, if they had more constant communication and guidance and also some emphasis on site that they can come on different days, I think that we’d be in a better spot.”

Click to play video 'Coronavirus: Ontario health officials explain COVID-19 test being used in pharmacies' Coronavirus: Ontario health officials explain COVID-19 test being used in pharmacies
Coronavirus: Ontario health officials explain COVID-19 test being used in pharmacies

Nick Vander Gulick, a London pharmacist who owns and runs the Shoppers Drug Mart on Richmond Street downtown, said “it’s important to recognize that pharmacies are there to test asymptomatic individuals.

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“These are people who, you know, haven’t been exposed to COVID-19, haven’t tested positive for COVID-19 in the past, but really, they’re there just to really allow people to live their lives a little bit better,” he said.

“The best example is if I were to go see my grandparents, I need to get tested before I see them in a long-term care facility. And I don’t really want to line up and take the resources away from a symptomatic test at testing centres in the city and elsewhere in the province. To be able to just go into a Shoppers Drug Mart and get that done is really important and makes me feel a bit more at ease.”

He spoke with Global News shortly after the province’s announcement on Wednesday, and said he would be “grateful for that opportunity when it comes our way to be able to do that.”

Jeffrey Robb, owner and pharmacist at Turner Drug Store, felt differently.

“I think it’s a bad idea to invite people who may have COVID into a small, enclosed location,” he told Global News in an email on Friday.

“We have been extremely busy since the beginning of the pandemic and it would be very time consuming for us to suit up in full body PPE (personal protective equipment) and devote staff members to testing.

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“Not to mention, if someone were to test positive, we would run the risk of being shut down for two weeks, and that would be devastating to our customers, many of whom are elderly or without transportation — they would have a terrible time having to navigate temporarily using another pharmacy.”

Read more: Appointment bookings in the works for October amid massive COVID-19 testing demand in London, Ont.

Holder says the region has had “great co-operation” with the province so far and is hoping that continues with an urgent expansion of testing to pharmacies in the region.

“Providing pharmacies in our city with the necessary resources to conduct COVID-19 tests would go a long way towards reducing extreme wait times at our existing assessment centres,” Holder added.

“I am hopeful the premier will act swiftly on this urgent request.”

— with files from Global News’ Daina Goldfinger.