The federal government will fund provincial efforts to test people for COVID-19, track the contacts of those who test positive, and help different jurisdictions share data, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced Friday.
The measures are essential because COVID-19 remains a serious health threat and the economy can’t fully recover until Canadians are confident any new outbreaks of the novel coronavirus will be contained, he said.
Federal contact tracers are helping public health authorities in Ontario and Trudeau said they’re ready to make thousands more calls a day when any province asks.
Statistics Canada has also provided 1,700 interviewers who can make 20,000 calls per day to help with contact-tracing efforts, Trudeau said.
“We need to get in touch with everyone who may have been exposed to the virus to make sure they quarantine and monitor themselves for symptoms or get tested,” Trudeau said in his daily briefing Friday.
“These federal resources are available to assist provinces and territories with any surges, or backlogs or challenges they have in contact tracing.”
But to do that, Canada needs to step up its testing for the virus, he said. Canada nominally has the capacity to test 60,000 people per day for COVID-19, but has been averaging only about 28,000 tests per day.
The prime minister said the government is still working to find out exactly what help the provinces need most.
The lab capacity of 60,000 tests is not a “magic number” though, warned Canada’s deputy chief public health officer Dr. Howard Njoo.
He said Canada doesn’t necessarily need to use the full capacity of its labs to test effectively.
While it’s more important to test the right people at the right time in order to catch infections, he said it’s comforting to know Canada has a greater capacity if there is a major surge in potential cases.
Federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu said Friday her department has been working with provinces to make sure they have the materials needed to meet their testing goals, including swabs, reagents, and people to do the work.
“We see ourselves as building capacity for all the provinces and territories to test to their fullest need,” she told the House of Commons committee on government operations.
Each province has its own testing strategy, and Ottawa must adapt its support to meet their individual needs, she said.
Provinces also need to improve the way they share information about the spread of the virus, Trudeau said.
The federal and provincial governments have been criticized for decades for archaic data systems that make sharing information difficult at the best of times.
While provinces and territories have co-ordinated with the Public Health Agency of Canada to get faster access to case numbers for COVID-19 during the pandemic, detailed epidemiological data is still lacking.
Njoo said there are discussions about standardizing data collection across regions to make it easier to share information.