OTTAWA — The federal government is ready to help provinces massively scale up their COVID-19 testing capacity to fend off a potential second wave of the novel coronavirus, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Thursday.
Testing needs to increase immediately in Ontario and Quebec, where the economies are starting to reopen but the number of new COVID-19 cases remains high, said Trudeau, who first offered provinces federal help on testing and contact tracing last week.
Trudeau said he's received positive responses from across Canada so far and planned to further discuss the offer on his weekly call with provincial and territorial premiers later Thursday.
"We know, particularly in those areas that are still trying to get the virus under control, it is going to be important to increase testing now," Trudeau said.
Even in areas with a low number of new cases, Trudeau said governments need to be able to instantly increase their testing capacity in the event of fresh outbreaks.
"Any flare-ups need to be responded to extremely quickly," he said.
Following the conference call with premiers, the Prime Minister's Office said much of the discussion focused on the need to ramp up testing and contact tracing.
Trudeau reiterated his offer to have the federal government help in any way it can, which the PMO said was "well-received."
Provinces have different needs. Some require the materials — swabs, reagents — to do testing, others need personnel to trace all the recent contacts a person who tests positive for COVID-19 has had.
All first ministers agreed that as they take the first cautious steps towards reopening and Canadians begin moving around more, governments need to share data and co-ordinate their approaches to testing and contact tracing, the PMO said.
First ministers also had a lengthy discussion in which each premier explained what measures they're taking to reopen and how those are working out, according to the PMO.
They also discussed this week's agreement to keep the Canada-U.S. border closed to non-essential traffic for another month, with which the PMO said there was "broad agreement."
Canada has the capacity to test about 60,000 people each day, but is averaging only about 28,000 daily tests.
Ontario has fallen far short of its goal of 16,000 tests per day. On Tuesday, the latest day for which figures are available, the province completed 10,506 tests. In Quebec, 9,582 tests were completed on Monday, according to the latest figures.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford said he is pushing for more tests and wants to see swabs done on taxi drivers, truckers, long-term care home workers and residents, as well as regular members of the community. The fact that it's not happening is frustrating, he said.
"We're going to make sure we ramp it up," Ford said in a briefing Thursday. "Can I give you an exact date? I can't. I'm pushing the table as hard as I can."
Trudeau said he doesn't want logistics or finances to get in the way of doing the testing or contact tracing needed to keep the pandemic under control.
One of the challenges to increasing the number of tests across Canada is that each jurisdiction has its own strategy, said Health Minister Patty Hajdu during the House of Commons special committee on COVID-19 Thursday.
To date, she said the federal government has been trying to help provinces increase their capacity by making sure they have access to labs, and materials like swabs and reagents.
Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe, chair of the premiers' council, said premiers discussed the issue among themselves Thursday prior to the conference call with Trudeau.
He said the federal government can help provinces by ensuring they have the equipment and personnel to ramp up testing. But it can also help them do contract tracing of individuals who travel from province to province and those who arrive from outside the country once international travel begins to pick up again.
"We have an opportunity here now to work with our federal government on not only our testing capacity but also our contact tracing capacity on an inter-provincial basis and then building into an international basis," he said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 21, 2020.
Laura Osman, The Canadian Press