Ontario Premier Doug Ford put the blame for the massive COVID-19 testing delays in his province on the federal government’s shoulders on Wednesday, while unveiling a plan for select pharmacies to start testing for the virus.
Facing criticism for lengthy lineups at testing centres, Mr. Ford pleaded with Health Canada to approve saliva testing and rapid antigen testing, two advances he said would improve the testing bottleneck in Ontario.
“The reason there’s lineups, very simple, Health Canada, we’ve been waiting for months for these antigen tests, the saliva tests,” Mr. Ford said, adding that he has been urging the federal government to move on the issue and blaming the logjam for the delays. “I am hearing crickets. I am hearing nothing, silence.”
Collecting samples of saliva for testing – as opposed to using deep-nasal swabs – does not require Health Canada approval. Mr. Ford himself announced on Wednesday that three Toronto hospital assessment centres would begin offering people the option of spitting in a cup for their coronavirus test. That spit would still have to be sent to a lab to be tested. (B.C. recently approved the use of “swish-and spit” tests, which involve gargling a cup of salt water, for children from kindergarten up to Grade 12.)
By contrast, rapid antigen tests do require Health Canada approval. They can return results on the spot in 15 minutes, bypassing overburdened labs. Although such tests are approved in the United States, federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu has said the technology is not yet accurate enough to earn Health Canada’s endorsement.
Eric Morrissette, a spokesman for Health Canada, said Canada “has one of the best regulatory systems in the world” for medical devices and has “avoided some of the challenges other countries have experienced with lower-quality tests."
He said Health Canada has received two applications for tests that use saliva samples and is working with the applicants. But he added that provincial and territorial laboratories can develop their own tests, including using saliva samples, which are regulated under provincial jurisdiction.
Cole Davidson, a spokesman for Ms. Hajdu, said in an e-mail that Ottawa has already provided $4-billion to provinces and territories to improve testing and contact tracing, including $1-billion to Ontario alone. He also said that Health Canada is “continuing to evaluate different testing solutions as manufacturers submit applications.”
The federal Throne Speech on Wednesday promised a testing assistance response team to meet “surge-testing needs,” and said Ottawa is “pursuing every technology and every option for faster tests.”
Many continue to line up for hours at Ontario’s testing centres – or end up turned away. In Kitchener, Ont., a drive-through test centre shut down after staff faced threats. A lineup of cars had started forming at 2 a.m.
Mr. Ford made his remarks alongside Shoppers Drug Mart president Jeff Leger at a pharmacy in Huntsville, Ont., where the Premier announced plans to allow up to 60 pharmacies in Ontario to start testing people as of Friday. Just those without COVID-19 symptoms will be eligible for the publicly funded tests, which will be by appointment only.
The Premier said the pharmacy testing would make “a big dent” in lineups. His office says the government anticipates pharmacies collecting about 3,000 samples, of the 35,000 Ontario processes each day.
Mr. Ford has been mentioning the idea publicly since August. Shoppers Drug Mart locations in Alberta have been offering COVID-19 tests since June. Some media reported Wednesday that several Ontario drugstores said they would not be ready to start testing Friday. A spokeswoman for Loblaw Cos., which owns Shoppers Drug Mart, said it will have 43 locations up and running but that all staff at affected stores may not yet have been informed about the program. Rexall and independent drugstores are also participating.
The province’s lab network, where all test samples are sent, is increasingly backlogged. Public Health Ontario warned Wednesday of even more delays as it said it was facing a “laboratory information system issue” and was unable issue test results. As of Wednesday afternoon, the lab network had 48,079 samples in the queue waiting to be tested, more than it is capable of processing in a day.
Some experts have been calling on the province to reduce the indiscriminate testing of asymptomatic people who haven’t come into contact with a confirmed case of COVID-19 to ease the burden on the strained lab network, which will also need to process the samples coming from the pharmacies.
Zain Chagla, an infectious disease physician and associate professor at McMaster University, said opening up testing at pharmacies for asymptomatic people could make Ontario’s testing backlog even worse.
“The turnaround times are still going to be the same,” Dr. Chagla said. “You might actually get more people adding into the pool ... which is not great right now.”
Vanessa Allen, medical director of Ontario Health’s COVID-19 provincial diagnostic network operations centre, said lab turnaround times were slowing and warned this can make it harder treat patients who may have COVID-19 as well as compromise the speed of contact tracing by public-health staff.
The proportion of tests completed within two days has dropped to a seven-day average of 66.2 per cent, down from 77.2 per cent on Sept. 15, Dr. Allen said. The target is 80 per cent.
“I do not see a lot of value in testing asymptomatic, low-risk individuals,” Dr. Allen said. “I think there’s a harm to it, which is that it means there’s an overall increase in turnaround times.”
With a report from Laura Stone
Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.