Ford says ‘patience has run thin’ with low numbers of COVID-19 tests in Ontario

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TORONTO -- Premier Doug Ford vowed Wednesday to immediately and vastly increase the number of COVID-19 tests Ontario performs after the province faced criticism for allowing most of its lab capacity to sit idle for days.

The province has been conducting fewer than 4,000 tests per day recently, although it is able to do 13,000.

Ontario at first didn't have enough assessment centres, then there were not enough labs to process the tests, then the supplies of reagent -- key chemicals needed for testing -- were low. But now that those issues have been resolved, there is no reason for the shortfall, Ford said.

"Now my patience has run thin and no more excuses," Ford said. "It's unacceptable.... We say we can do 13,000 a day, then we need to start doing 13,000 every single day."

Ford said he wants to see every long-term care resident, front-line health-care worker and first responder tested.

"We have to make this happen and we need to start doing it immediately, starting tomorrow," he said.

The more people who are tested, the more reliable the numbers will be at showing the scope of COVID-19's spread in Ontario, Ford said.

Health Minister Christine Elliott said a new testing strategy will be released soon, though she spoke Wednesday of prioritizing people in long-term care and retirement homes and Indigenous communities.

Assessment centres are told to use their clinical judgment to administer COVID-19 tests, but doctors have said they're told to adhere to provincial criteria of people who have symptoms and also fall into certain prioritized groups, including health-care workers, travellers and long-term care residents and staff.

Ontario's chief medical officer of health, Dr. David Williams, said there is growing evidence of people with COVID-19 presenting with atypical symptoms, so the province is looking to give the assessment centres more flexibility to test those people.

The assessment centres had been testing around 60 per cent of people referred to them in mid-March, but are now testing between 70 and 75 per cent, a spokesman for Elliott said.

Even people with COVID-19 symptoms were being turned away from testing and told to self-isolate because there was not enough reagent to process the tests, Elliott said.

Ford said the reagent was restocked four or five days ago, but refused to lay the blame at the feet of anyone in particular for the continuing shortfall of tests over that period.

"We have to move forward and learn from our mistakes in the past," he said.

Ontario reported 550 new COVID-19 cases on Wednesday, the biggest single-day increase so far, though figures also showed a return to an increasing testing backlog.

The new cases bring the total in the province to 5,276 cases -- an increase of 11.6 per cent over Tuesday -- including 174 deaths and 2,074 resolved cases.

The jump followed two days of relatively lower numbers of new cases.

Despite Ontario being able to run 13,000 tests per day, assessment centres have only been submitting about 3,500, the government said.

But even with that gap in available testing capacity, a backlog of pending tests that had nearly been cleared has now grown for two days in a row, and is up to more than 1,100.

There are now 99 assessment centres open in Ontario. Ford announced Wednesday that the province is extending hours of construction on critical health-care infrastructure projects, such as assessment centres and temporary structures that hospitals are preparing in the event of COVID-19 patient surges.

The number of people in hospital dropped since Tuesday, from 614 to 605, but more are now in intensive care and on ventilators.

There are now at least 58 long-term care homes with one or more cases of COVID-19. About 45 per cent of all of the COVID-19 deaths in Ontario have been among long-term care residents.

Pinecrest Nursing Home, the site of Ontario's largest outbreak, reported another resident's death overnight, for a total of 28 deaths linked to COVID-19 at the Bobcaygeon facility.

As well, 580 of Ontario's confirmed COVID-19 cases have been in health-care workers.

-- With files from Cassandra Szklarski

Allison Jones, The Canadian Press

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