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A woman is tested for COVID-19 at a mobile clinic in the Montreal neighbourhood of Saint-Michel, Sunday, May 3, 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues in Canada and around the world. Montreal public health director, Mylene Drouin, says more staff are needed.Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

Quebec announced a “massive” testing strategy Friday for Montreal, the epicentre of Canada’s COVID-19 pandemic, but authorities admitted they missed their testing targets and don’t yet have enough staff to rapidly trace the contacts of positive cases.

Montreal has recorded 18,435 cases of COVID-19 and 1,727 deaths, making it by far the hardest-hit part of the country. And aside from the viral outbreaks in long-term care homes, several other parts of the greater Montreal area are witnessing sustained community transmission.

Public health authorities say their strategy involves a “massive” increase in testing in parts of the city where COVID-19 transmission is more active. Montreal’s public health director, Mylene Drouin, said two city buses have been retrofitted into mobile testing units to reach people who can’t get to clinics and immigrant communities “where language is a barrier.

Dr. Horacio Arruda, Quebec’s director of public health, had previously said he expected the province to administer 14,000 tests a day by the end of the week, but acknowledged the province is only able to administer about 10,000.

“With the efforts that we are putting in place with this new testing approach we think we will be able to administer 14,000 tests per day in the coming days,” he said from Montreal.

But aside from the problems in rapidly increasing testing capacity, Dr. Arruda said he’s hearing from his teams on the ground that people aren’t following up with public health officials after testing positive.

“Either they are not reporting their symptoms, or they aren’t staying isolated,” Dr. Arruda said. “This situation is very problematic and it’s seriously hurting the work of our public health teams who are working day and night to stop the spread of this virus.”

In addition to failing to meet its testing targets, Quebec also lacks the staff to rapidly investigate people who test positive and to trace those they may have come into contact with.

Dr. Drouin said her office has around 200 people who can conduct about 500 investigations a day, within 24 hours of patients testing positive for COVID-19, but more staff are needed.

“By testing more we have to increase our capacity in the next couple of weeks,” she said, “that’s why we are recruiting more people to investigate more cases.”

She said she currently has four investigative teams working on two shifts and will need another 50 to 100 people over the next few weeks. Dr. Drouin added her office is “digitizing” part of the investigative process but didn’t give details.

Quebec health officials reported 94 new deaths across the province linked to COVID-19 on Friday, bringing the provincial tally to 2,725. The province also announced 912 new cases, bringing the number of people infected to 36,150.

However, the number of hospitalizations was down by nine to 1,827 and the number of people being treated in intensive care was reduced by 17 to 207.

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