Ontario, Quebec dealing with high COVID testing demand as Omicron spreads

·4 min read
Ontario, Quebec dealing with high COVID testing demand as Omicron spreads

TORONTO — Signs of strain on COVID-19 testing capacity emerged in Ontario and Quebec on Monday, prompting calls for limited resources to be prioritized for those who need them most.

In Ontario, Ottawa Public Health advised residents of an "unprecedented surge" at testing sites that's left the centres unable to keep up with demand. It asked people to isolate if they have symptoms, receive a positive rapid test result or are exposed to a positive case.

The message posted on social media came after health workers in the city were warned of peaking demand in a memo from local health officials on Friday.

"Because of this unfortunate reality, OPH will be directing people with any symptoms of COVID-19 who are unable to access a timely COVID-19 test to assume that they are infected with Omicron and self-isolate immediately," the letter said, noting the rules also applied to household contacts of a potential case.

"It is anticipated that existing testing capacity (both obtaining samples and processing in the labs) will need to be preserved for essential workers and to protect the most vulnerable sectors and populations."

A similar strain on testing resources was also reported in Kingston, Ont., last week, where community spread of Omicron led to a backlog in access to tests. Other local health officials have said they anticipate similar issues in their communities as cases rise rapidly.

In Quebec, testing centres were also seeing long waits for appointments and delays in results as the province continued to break records for its daily tally of cases. Health Minister Christian Dubé urged only residents with COVID-19 symptoms get tested, noting more than 45,000 tests were processed in the last few days.

"It's a record since the beginning of the pandemic, and unfortunately, it’s our maximum capacity," Dubé said. "Testing centres should not be a tool to get tested if you're asymptomatic and you want to gather with your loved ones."

Dubé asked residents to prioritize at-home rapid tests instead, which became available in pharmacies on Monday for people 14 and over.

In Ontario, the province also started handing out rapid tests to the public at malls, liquor stores and other high-traffic locations last week, prompting long-lines and frustration from many who left empty-handed when supply ran out. Two million rapid tests have been allocated for distribution under that initiative, while others are being provided to workplaces, long-term care homes and other settings.

Mayors and chairs from the largest municipalities in the Toronto and Hamilton areas said in a statement Monday that they hoped frontline workers will get priority for rapid antigen test kits, "given their greater exposure and their inability to work from home."

Currently, Ontarians who test positive on rapid antigen tests must confirm their results with a PCR test. But experts have warned that Omicron's explosive growth may mean capacity to offer the gold-standard tests to all cases and contacts may run out.

Some residents reported frustrating delays in receiving PCR test results as well as trouble booking tests.

Michael Wiznuk used a rapid test he bought on a recent trip to the U.S. after he began feeling mild cold symptoms last week. It was positive, and he booked a PCR test appointment in Toronto last Thursday.

He only got his positive test result back on Sunday, and his roommates have been trying without success to book their own tests, he said.

"They’re trying to book a PCR test, but it's impossible. They’ve been looking all day," he said.

In Peterborough, Ont., on Monday, the local public health unit started encouraging residents to report positive test results from rapid tests online to help track COVID-19 in the community.

Dr. Andrew Pinto, a public health physician and associate professor at the University of Toronto, said testing capacity issues like those seen in Ottawa are concerning, especially if people with symptoms or those who have been exposed can’t get tested.

"The vital signs of the pandemic is the data from surveillance, so we really need to make that an important priority," he said in an interview.

If such strain on resources is seen across Ontario, Pinto said it would be helpful for other regions to document people’s rapid test results, like Peterborough is doing, as long as public health units have capacity to analyze the information and people are aware they can log their results.

He added that PCR tests are still the gold standard and resources should go toward making them easier to access with larger-scale assessment sites, though he noted that will be challenging as public health units also scale up booster vaccination efforts.

Last week, Ontario's top doctor said if testing capacity is maxed out, PCR tests will be reserved for people with active symptoms and congregate settings, with rapid tests offered to others.

The strain on testing comes as Omicron has rapidly become dominant in Ontario - the province's expert pandemic advisers estimated it made up 83 per cent of cases as of Monday.

- with files from Virginie Ann in Montreal and Liam Casey in Toronto.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 20, 2021.

Holly McKenzie-Sutter, The Canadian Press

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