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People wait in line for hours at a COVID assessment centre at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto on Sept. 24, 2020.Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

Many people without symptoms would be refused COVID-19 tests under new rules Ontario Premier Doug Ford announced on Thursday in an effort to reduce lineups at testing centres and backlogs in the province’s labs.

A day earlier, Mr. Ford and Health Minister Christine Elliott had urged anyone who wanted a test to get one when they announced that pharmacies would begin swabbing asymptomatic people to help alleviate the strain on hospital assessment centres.

On Thursday, Mr. Ford said some hospitals told him that 70 to 80 per cent of people lining up for tests had no symptoms – and that health care workers and others in vulnerable groups have priority.

“There’s two groups: People that want a test just for getting a test, so they feel a little more comfortable, and that’s fine; or people that need a test,” Mr. Ford said. “We have to focus on the people that need a test.”

The change is one of several announcements this week the Ford government says make up its fall COVID-19 preparedness plan, as infections continue to rise and some in the medical community said the province has failed to address the spread of the virus in recent weeks.

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In a letter distributed on Thursday by the Ontario Hospital Association, 38 physicians and health care experts called for the government to immediately restrict non-essential businesses and activities “that facilitate social gatherings and increase opportunities for exposure.” Those include bars and dine-in restaurants, nightclubs, gyms, theatres and places of worship.

Mr. Ford said he is not ruling out tougher measures, but wanted to avoid another economically damaging shutdown: “We’re going to review the numbers. And if it’s a huge spike, everything’s on the table. I will listen to our health experts.”

Under the province’s new testing guidelines, which senior health officials said were being distributed to Ontario’s 150 testing centres and set to take effect on Friday, only the following people will be eligible for testing:

– those with one or more symptoms of COVID-19;

– those who have been notified through a call from public health or a message on the COVID Alert smartphone app that they have been in contact with a confirmed case;

– those who live or work in a place where public-health officials have declared an outbreak;

-those who live or work in higher-risk settings that the government has targeted for testing, such as long-term care homes or homeless shelters.

The province said only asymptomatic people who fall into the above eligibility criteria can book a test at one of about 60 pharmacies that are set to begin testing on Friday.

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said Mr. Ford was causing “absolute chaos” as the province enters what could be a second wave of the virus: “They are now rationing testing because they failed to listen and act earlier.”

Mr. Ford said the decision to restrict testing was made on Wednesday, after a four-hour call with officials including Chief Medical Officer of Health David Williams, and was based on advice from Dr. Williams and other medical experts. Alberta made a similar move earlier this month.

Some medical experts have warned in recent days that widespread testing of people with no symptoms has uncovered few positive cases. On Wednesday, Vanessa Allen, medical director of Ontario Health’s COVID-19 provincial diagnostic network operations centre, told The Globe and Mail that asymptomatic tests were causing an increase in lab delays.

Mr. Ford said his government is spending $1.07-billion on contact tracing and testing, which includes hiring 1,000 lab technicians and contact tracers. He did not mention that the federal government has given Ontario $1-billion for testing and contact tracing. He did not say how much of Thursday’s money was federal cash.

Meanwhile, Ontario’s infections and testing delays continued to rise. The province reported 409 new COVID-19 cases on Thursday. And it did just over 30,000 tests, well below its daily goal of 50,000. More than 58,000 test results were in a backlog.

Larissa Matukas, head of microbiology at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto and one of signatories of the letter distributed on Thursday calling for stricter measures, called the rise of cases in Ontario a crucial moment.

“We’ve come so far over the summertime … and we need to put restrictions back in place to preserve as much of that normalcy as possible,” Dr. Matukas said in an interview.

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