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Ontario shifts focus of COVID-19 testing to symptomatic people

Last Updated Sep 24, 2020 at 4:55 pm EDT

Ontario health officials say low-risk individuals who are asymptomatic should not be going to assessment centres for a COVID-19 test.

Associate chief medical officer of health Dr. Barbara Yaffe says that testing needs to be reserved for people with symptoms, or those who have come into contact with someone who has COVID-19.

“Your average person out there who is not exposed to a case, is not part of an outbreak, or has no symptoms, should not be going for testing,” Yaffe said. “There is no value.”

Previously, the province had encouraged anyone who wanted to get a COVID-19 test to seek one at an assessment centre.

Now Premier Doug Ford says Ontario needs to be more strategic about who receives a COVID-19 test.

“I was the guy up here for months over and over again saying ‘get tested, get tested,'” Ford said at his daily briefing on Thursday.

“Now as we’re ramping up with over 215 sites including the 60 pharmacies, our message to the people is very, very simple. There’s different groups, people that want a test just for getting a test because they feel a little more comfortable or people that need a test. We have to focus on people that need a test because of their jobs or they’ve been around someone that tested positive – those are the people that we want to focus on.”

The change today comes as assessment centres across the province have been struggling with long-line ups.

Ontario Health CEO Matt Anderson said the new guidance will be issued to the province’s assessment centres Thursday and take effect Friday. He expected assessment centres could start turning asymptomatic people away at that point.

“We want to ensure that we have the testing capacity for our priority populations,” he said, adding that a full communications plan will ensure the new rules are explained to the public.

The government announced yesterday that asymptomatic individuals can make an appointment to get a COVID-19 test at up to 60 pharmacies across the province starting Friday.

The province saw a processing backlog of nearly 50,000 tests on Wednesday as demand for the assessments surged because of the return to school.

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath accused the government of “rationing testing” because it didn’t plan ahead.

“It is shocking to see how chaotic this government is and how much they’re floundering in terms of their response,” she said, adding that the change in testing strategy was creating confusion.

Green party Leader Mike Schreiner said the government should have expanded the province’s testing capacity weeks ago to avoid this problem.

“I’m glad the premier has finally awoken to the chaos at testing centres, where families are being turned away at the crack of dawn,” he said. “But we wouldn’t be in this dangerous position if the Ford government had planned for a second wave during the summer.”

Ford says the province will be spending over a billion dollars to bolster testing and case and contact management.

Meanwhile, a group of 38 health leaders and physicians is urging the province to place restrictions on non-essential businesses and activities that facilitate social gatherings, saying the recent rise in cases shows immediate action is needed to curb the spread of the virus.

In a statement released by the Ontario Hospital Association, the group says restrictions should target dine-in restaurants and bars, nightclubs, gyms, theatres and places of worship.

It also says the province should ask non-essential businesses to have staff work from home wherever possible.

“While maintaining our province’s economy is always a priority, we are extremely concerned that, without action, the current rate of spread will require a return to widespread closure of non-essential businesses and schools to prevent a rise in hospitalizations,” the group says.