TORONTO — Up to 60 Ontario pharmacies will offer COVID-19 tests starting Friday, an initiative the government hopes will help reduce long waits at assessment centres across the province.
Premier Doug Ford announced the pharmacy testing Wednesday as the second part of a fall pandemic preparedness plan, saying it would be expanded in the coming weeks.
Pharmacies will only test individuals with no symptoms after they have made an appointment. Ford stressed that those experiencing symptoms must continue to go to the hospital-run assessment centres.
"We need to make it easier to get a COVID test," he said. "It's easy to get a flu shot, we have to make sure that (getting) a COVID test is just as easy."
Ford has been under increasing pressure to address long lines at some of the province's 147 assessment centres as the demand for tests surged following the return to school earlier this month.
Hours before Wednesday's pharmacy announcement, a hospital in Kitchener, Ont., closed its drive-through COVID-19 testing centre for the day over concerns for the safety of its staff and the public.
The Grand River Hospital said vehicles began to line up at 2:30 a.m., five hours before opening time, and "aggressive behaviours" from some of those waiting contributed to the decision to temporarily shut down.
Health Minister Christine Elliott said the pharmacy testing — which will be free — will help the province get ready for future waves of COVID-19. She noted, however, that anyone getting a pharmacy test will need to be pre-screened ahead of their appointment.
"With a recent increase in the number of cases we are providing people with more options for testing to identify cases of COVID-19 early," she said.
A union representing hospital workers raised concerns that pharmacy testing could bring people with the virus in contact with vulnerable seniors or other medically compromised people.
"Sending the public to a pharmacy and mingling with people who fear that they have COVID-19, and may be symptomatic … seems to me to be unwise and potentially not very safe," said Michael Hurley, president of the Council of Hospital Unions, a branch of the Canadian Union of Public Employees.
But the CEO of the Ontario Pharmacist Association said testing can be conducted safely in pharmacies.
"The initial phase was meant to be small to so that we could do this in a safe way and learn from the initial roll out and make any tweaks necessary as we go more province-wide" Justin Bates said.
Pharmacies have put pandemic infection-control protocols in place to protect their staff and patrons, but some locations may still decide not to participate in the voluntary program, he said.
"This won't be for everyone," Bates said. "Those that don't have the appropriate staffing levels or the footprint in order to maintain physical distancing and having a private room to conduct the test may not participate."
Colin Furness, an infection control epidemiologist with the University of Toronto, offered muted praise for the decision to expand testing to pharmacies.
He said enlisting pharmacies located far away from hospitals and other assessment centres will have a positive impact on sample collection, but will also add to the strain on testing labs that are already struggling to keep up with their current workload.
A further influx of testing samples, he said, risks delaying result wait times and contact tracing efforts, which in turn could undermine efforts to curb the spread of the virus.
"We're only addressing one half of the problem," he said. "... The problem that really needs solving is lab capacity now. If the pharmacies work really, really well we're going to start to have long delays to get test results. As soon as that happens, we have lost control."
The province said Wednesday it processed 35,436 tests over the previous day, with another 48,079 under investigation.
Ford also said that three Ontario hospitals will begin offering saliva testing as a less invasive testing option. He urged Health Canada to approve wider saliva testing to help speed up COVID-19 assessments.
"Health Canada, we need your help," he said. "I just can't stress it enough, all I'm hearing is crickets right now from Health Canada on the saliva tests."
A spokesman for Health Canada said Wednesday night that the agency has received two applications for COVID-19 tests which use saliva samples and is working with the applicants.
"Products are assessed thoroughly before they are authorized, to ensure they are safe and effective," Eric Morrissette said in a statement, adding that provincial labs can develop their own tests which provincial governments regulate.
The province is expected to continue to announce other parts of its pandemic preparedness plan over the coming days. The first piece involved purchasing millions of seasonal flu shots that all residents are encouraged to get.
Ontario reported 335 new cases of COVID-19 Wednesday, along with three new deaths related to the virus.
The province also reported 42 new COVID-19 cases related to schools, including at least 21 among students. Those bring the number of schools with a reported case to 153 out of Ontario's 4,828 publicly-funded schools.
The total number of cases in Ontario now stands at 48,087, which includes 2,835 deaths and 41,600 cases classified as resolved.
— with files from Michelle McQuigge.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 23, 2020.
Shawn Jeffords, The Canadian Press