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Ontario Premier Doug Ford answers questions at the daily briefing at Queen's Park in Toronto on April 8, 2020.Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press

Premier Doug Ford says Ontario’s low testing rate for COVID-19 is “unacceptable” and is vowing to significantly increase the numbers to catch up with the rest of the country.

Ontario has the lowest testing rates in Canada, which infectious disease experts say puts the province at a significant disadvantage when it comes to containing the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Admitting he is “frustrated” by the slow pace, Mr. Ford said Wednesday he is directing his top health officials to immediately start conducting up to 13,000 tests a day. This week, Ontario only tested about 2,500 to 3,200 people a day for COVID-19.

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“My patience has run thin. No more excuses. It’s unacceptable,” he said. “We need to start doing 13,000 every single day. I want to see every single long-term care facility tested, every patient ... I want to see every front-line health-care worker in this province tested."

Mr. Ford said Ontario has enough capacity, as well as the reagent necessary, to complete tests at that rate.

He said he will not look back on why the province has been lagging or fault any of its top health officials for the slow pace. “The buck stops here" on accountability, the Premier stated.

“We’re going to learn from the past mistakes, and we’re going to move forward,” he said, adding that David Williams, Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, has done a “good job.”

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How to end the COVID-19 lockdowns? Slowly and carefully, it appears

Ontario’s new COVID-19 testing guidelines are set to be released on Friday, and are expected to focus on increasing testing for long-term care facilities and First Nations communities, as well as expanding the criteria for testing at the province’s 97 assessment centres.

On Wednesday, Dr. Williams said he wants to see more testing as well, but it’s not “valuable” to compare the provinces on a per-capita basis, because of Ontario’s size. “It’s not a matter of who looks better, it’s a matter of how collectively we’re doing on a Canadian basis.”

Dr. Williams said Mr. Ford has acted “like a captain,” telling health officials what he wants to see done. And while long-term care is a major priority, Dr. Williams said “testing for the sake of testing and just racking up numbers ... is not only a poor use of resources, it distracts you from getting the task done.”

Experts say that widespread testing must go hand in hand with physical distancing measures in order to flatten the curve and slow the rate of new transmissions. That’s because many people with COVID-19 have few or mild symptoms, meaning they may not realize they are sick. As a result, they continue to interact with others and unknowingly spread the illness.

Countries that have been able to successfully flatten the curve, such as South Korea, used testing to find the disease in asymptomatic close contacts of confirmed cases to ensure they remained in isolation, stopping further transmission.

While shortages of test kits and laboratory backlogs have been a challenge across the country, other provinces, such as Alberta, have been able to test more people per capita than most other parts of the world. This week, Alberta further expanded its eligibility criteria for testing to anyone 65 and older with fever, cough or other respiratory symptoms, as well as symptomatic group-home workers, first responders, police officers and others who work in settings with a high risk for COVID-19 outbreaks.

David Fisman, an epidemiologist at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health, said there is an urgent need to ramp up testing to help prevent and contain outbreaks in long-term care homes. Widespread testing can also help public-health officials stay on top of the disease by finding new infections in unexpected places and ensuring those individuals stay isolated.

“We’re only looking at places where we would expect to find COVID,” said Dr. Fisman, who is also an attending physician at Toronto Western Hospital. “Clearly, Ontario is falling away from the rest of Canada in terms of the effectiveness of the response.”

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