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Ontario needs clearer messaging about COVID-19 testing, expert says

cbc.ca logo cbc.ca 2020-05-22 Adam Carter
a man wearing a blue hat: COVID-19 testing has been discussed at length this week at the province's daily news conferences. © Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada COVID-19 testing has been discussed at length this week at the province's daily news conferences.

The provincial government needs to be clearer about its messaging around COVID-19 testing, one infectious disease specialist says — especially with daily case counts creeping up as Ontario embarks on its first phase of reopening.

"It looks like we're seeing a trend in the wrong direction," said epidemiologist Dr. Ashleigh Tuite, who is an assistant professor at the University of Toronto Dalla Lana School of Public Health.

"The puzzling part right now is we're seeing cases increase, but not necessarily more testing."

Ontario reported 441 new cases of COVID-19 on Friday, marking a third straight day of increasing daily cases.

The number of tests processed by Ontario's network of labs Thursday stood at 11,276, still short of the province's own benchmark of 16,000 per day. It's the fifth straight day that the province has failed to meet its target, let alone its capacity of 20,000 tests.

For weeks, those numbers were buoyed by widespread testing in the province's long-term care facilities. With the first phase of those tests now finished, provincial officials have been saying they can't force people to go get tested at one of Ontario's 144 assessment centres.

Tuite told CBC News that previous government messaging might be contributing to those low numbers. Up until last week, she said, people were largely being told to not seek a test unless they had severe symptoms.

"I think a lot of people have heard stories about people who went to the assessment centres and were turned away," she said.

"At this point, people may be avoiding getting tested."     

Ontario's Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. David Williams addressed the issue of clear communication at a news conference Friday, saying he has been "made aware" that the province's messaging, either from the online self-assessment tool or Telehealth, has been "less than consistent.

"We're planning to rectify that," Williams said.     

'No one is going to be refused' at testing centres, premier says       

This week, Premier Doug Ford has been pushing for anyone with symptoms to go get tested, and repeated that plea Friday at his own daily news conference.

"No one is going to be refused," he said. "Please go out and get tested. It's absolutely critical."

Ford also said the province does have a defined strategy around testing, and will be "moving forward with that strategy to make sure we get as many people tested as possible."

He gave a smattering of details on that front, saying the province was going to be rolling out random testing across Ontario. Ford said more testing will happen in seniors' homes over the weekend, as well as testing for both symptomatic and asymptomatic health-care workers.

Then, the premier said, the province plans to test in communities with "hot spots," pointing to "the urban centres around Toronto," a region that currently accounts for 63.9 per cent of the province's cases.

"The more testing the better," Ford said.

Targeted testing

But not everyone agrees. Dr. Anna Banerji, an associate professor at the University of Toronto Dalla Lana School of Public Health, told CBC News that she doesn't support widespread asymptomatic testing.

"Just testing random people who have no symptoms makes no sense to me," she said. "I don't think that's going to help us."

Instead, she suggested, testing should be targeted to specific instances where outbreaks exist.

"I don't know if we can contain this virus just by testing if there are so many asymptomatic people getting it," she said.

It also appears unlikely that the province would ever mandate testing, with provincial Associate Medical Officer of Health Dr. Barbara Yaffe calling that a "last resort" on Friday.

Still, there is an appetite for increased testing in the province. Coun. Joe Cressy, chair of the Toronto board of health, tweeted about the issue Thursday, and pushed for proactive testing for vulnerable populations and wider general testing.

"We are three months into this pandemic and already entering a provincial reopening phase. Meanwhile, testing is still not providing an accurate picture of the actual state of transmission. It's long past time for this to be fixed," he said.

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