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The government of Ontario is planning to allow pharmacies to provide COVID-19 tests to people who have symptoms. Currently, people with symptoms and those who are close contacts are directed to assessment centres, operated by hospitals.Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

The Ontario government is planning to allow pharmacies to offer COVID-19 tests to people with symptoms of the disease, in what some experts warned was a move that could expose unsuspecting customers to the virus.

Infectious-disease experts said the plan could see those suffering symptoms of COVID-19, who are much more likely to infect others, wander into the same store as vulnerable people, such as seniors, looking to fill their prescriptions.

In a statement late Tuesday, NDP Leader Andrea Horwath called on Premier Doug Ford to put the plan on hold “until the risks and safety protocols can be clarified.”

Earlier Tuesday, Mr. Ford defended the plan, which has not been officially announced yet, at an unrelated press conference in Etobicoke, saying pharmacies offering the tests would do so safely.

“Anyone walking into the store, we still have a masking policy,” Mr. Ford said. “They’re going to have dedicated lines going into the pharmacy. … I have confidence they’ll do a fine job.”

Currently, only people without symptoms can submit a sample for a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test at a pharmacy. (These are the gold-standard COVID-19 tests confirmed in labs.) But they cannot be close contacts of positive cases or part of an outbreak investigation; and the tests are aimed at eligible groups that include long-term care workers, Indigenous peoples and temporary foreign workers.

People with symptoms and those who are close contacts are directed to assessment centres, operated by hospitals, although samples are also collected at private labs as well as temporary and mobile sites.

A Ministry of Health official confirmed to The Globe and Mail that Ontario intends to expand the publicly funded collection of samples for symptomatic people and close contacts of positive cases to pharmacies that opt in to the program. The rollout is due to start some time in the next several weeks.

The Globe is not identifying the official as they were not authorized to speak publicly about the plans.

Participating pharmacies would also offer free take-home sample-collection kits for eligible individuals with symptoms – similar to the system being rolled out at schools. The official said the move would offer more testing locations, in addition to the current testing centres, and allow the province to keep on top of tracking cases.

Pharmacies would be expected to implement infection-prevention measures, the official said, including dedicated spaces for specimen collection; physical distancing; scheduling for tests to avoid lineups; and time for cleaning. They would also be expected to consider improved ventilation. The locations would be signed and the ministry website would list participating pharmacies.

Andrew Morris, a senior infectious-diseases doctor at Toronto’s Mount Sinai and University Health Network hospitals, calls the concept “absolutely ridiculous.”

Dr. Morris, a member of the province’s COVID-19 Science Advisory Table, said he could not imagine most pharmacists wanting to participate, as customers would be reluctant to shop where there could be highly infectious people, regardless of the measures put in place.

“It just does not seem like a good idea,” he said.

Naheed Dosani, a Toronto palliative care physician, posted on Twitter that the policy puts elderly shoppers in poorly ventilated stores at risk, saying that “COVID is airborne, so how is this a safe policy?”

Justin Bates, chief executive of the Ontario Pharmacists Association, said he could not comment in detail on the plan as he was bound by a confidentiality agreement covering talks with the Ministry of Health.

But he said in an e-mail that the OPA has been arguing for an expansion of the testing program “to increase access and protect our communities.” He said pharmacies would “adhere to all safety measures defined by public-health experts.”

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