TORONTO — Ontario's health minister defended a plan Wednesday to allow people with COVID-19 symptoms to get tested for the virus in pharmacies, after some experts raised safety concerns.
Health Minister Christine Elliott told the legislature that pharmacies will take standard infection prevention and control measures — including mask-wearing, physical distancing and having a dedicated space to perform the tests.
"(Chief Medical Officer of Health) Dr. Kieran Moore, and the people of Public Health Ontario, they're epidemiologists. They know what's safe, and they have indicated that this is going to be safe," she said. "There are going to be strict measures."
She also said there will be a list of participating pharmacies online and signage posted outside stores so people know that people with COVID-19 symptoms may be present before entering the facility.
As it stands, Ontario pharmacies are only able to perform COVID-19 tests for people who don't have symptoms, haven't been in contact with an infected person and aren't connected to an outbreak.
The Ontario Pharmacists Association said there's big interest from its members in offering tests to symptomatic patients. More than 1,000 pharmacies have applied to offer the tests, compared to the 200 currently offering tests to asymptomatic customers.
But some public health experts said mixing regular customers with people exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19 presents serious safety issues.
"It's the same patient population that an assessment centre deals with, without the same level of protection. And then you have innocent bystanders who aren't there for that reason who could be infected," said Dr. Michael Warner, an intensivist at Michael Garron Hospital in Toronto.
"I wouldn't enter the store for any reason, just like I wouldn't walk into an assessment centre without full PPE."
Dr. Anna Banerji, a professor at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health, said she's particularly worried about elderly people and others who are immunocompromised who may be exposed at a pharmacy testing site.
She said she has questions about how well ventilated pharmacies are and whether distancing will even be possible while people wait for their tests.
"Unless the pharmacies can ensure that there's a separation between the sick people and the average consumer that's going into Shopper's Drug Mart or whichever pharmacy, I think this could be a place for transmission," she said.
Tim Brady, chair of the Ontario Pharmacists Association's board of directors, said there are several ways pharmacies can make customers feel safe as symptomatic testing ramps up.
Brady owns three independent pharmacies in southwestern Ontario, and he said he only plans to offer tests at one of them so people with safety concerns can avoid locations where symptomatic people will be.
He said the OPA would also like to see the province allow pharmacists to go out to clients' cars to perform the tests.
"That way we'd still do the test, and you could really separate out the people," he said.
James Tiessen, a professor of health administration at Ryerson University, said he's in favour of the plan.
"(The province) seems to have determined that the benefits of making testing accessible outweigh the risks of transmission in the pharmacy," he said, noting that more testing will allow for more accurate testing of COVID-19's spread.
Amber Labelle of Ottawa weighed things differently.
She said she's moved her prescriptions from Shoppers Drug Mart to another pharmacy, due to the chain's publicized plan to participate in the program.
"I feel very frustrated knowing that my elderly in-laws travel into these types of environments," she said. "They should be kept safe, and knowing that this will increase their risk of exposure to COVID-19 is frankly infuriating."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 17, 2021.
— with files from Holly McKenzie-Sutter.
Nicole Thompson, The Canadian Press