Ottawa says it will intervene to step up COVID-19 testing in regions experiencing delays as public-health experts warn that shortages of testing kits put Canadians at risk.
Federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu said Sunday that Ottawa wants a more uniform response across the country to diagnosing new cases after some provinces restricted who gets tested.
Officials are scrambling to prevent the kind of situation that is unfolding in Italy, where nearly 800 people died as a result of COVID-19 infections in a single day this weekend.
Public-health experts have been calling on health officials to increase testing capacity in Canada in order to get ahead of the problem. Across the country, there are growing concerns about a shortage in testing supplies, which could hamper efforts to detect and contain the virus. Officials say they are working on securing more testing kits, but it could take time.
Any delay could complicate Canada’s response to the growing COVID-19 crisis. Provincial laboratories are also overwhelmed as demand for testing increases. Ontario, one of the only provinces that reports how many test results are pending, had nearly 8,400 in the queue as of Sunday.
In Ontario, patients and clinicians say it’s taking nearly a week to receive test results. Infectious disease experts warn the lengthy delays in producing test results are placing the country’s most populous province in a precarious position.
Ms. Hajdu said there are continuing discussions with provinces to determine how to fix problems in the system as Canada prepares for an increase in COVID-19 cases.
“This is an area that we’re watching very closely over the next couple of days,” Ms. Hajdu said. “We know that various provinces have various problems and challenges, but also assets and strengths.”
She didn’t elaborate on what new measures or guidance the federal government could introduce to help ensure all provinces are on the same page.
Widespread COVID-19 testing is critical to reducing the spread of the illness. Many people with the infection have mild symptoms and may not realize they are ill without a test, leading them to continue to interact with others and pass on the virus.
Casting a wide testing net could also allow officials to get an accurate sense of how widely the disease is spreading and allow them to plan their responses accordingly. For instance, while Italy is battling a devastating COVID-19 outbreak, one village has been able to extinguish new infections by testing and re-testing every resident, even if they showed no symptoms.
About 92,000 Canadians have been tested for COVID-19, according to Howard Njoo, Canada’s deputy chief public health officer. The country is now producing about 10,000 test results a day, he said, showing that testing access is improving.
More than 1,300 people have tested positive for COVID-19 in Canada and at least 20 people have died as a result of the disease as of Sunday, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada.
But it’s expected those numbers will continue to climb, particularly as many March break travellers come back to Canada. That’s why health officials have been emphasizing the need for any international travellers, including those who visited the United States, to self-isolate and avoid contact with others for 14 days after their return.
To combat growing demands for tests, B.C. and Ontario officials have moved in recent days to increasingly tighten criteria for who can get a test. They are focusing on patients who are sick enough to be hospitalized and other high-risk groups, including health-care workers and long-term-care residents.
Infectious disease experts have become increasingly concerned over the approach, with many singling out Ontario for what they describe as a response that is out of step with some best practices.
In addition to tightening testing criteria, provincial officials have also declined to confirm COVID-19 is spreading locally in the province. Local spread refers to cases that are not linked to international travel. Experts say Ontario residents need to be warned about the reality of community spread to help ensure they adhere to social-distancing requests.
“We clearly have widespread community transmission,” said Janine McCready, an infectious diseases physician at Toronto’s Michael Garron Hospital. “The public really has no idea because the communication has been so focused on [international] travel.”
Other provinces, such as Alberta, have continued to test people with less severe symptoms, which experts say is key to detecting community spread of the virus.
On Sunday, Dr. Njoo said federal officials are looking at a number of options, including new testing technology that could deliver faster results.
“We’re looking to acquire these new types of testing kits and obviously roll it out across the country as soon as possible,” he said. On Friday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced Ottawa-based Spartan Bioscience will receive fast-tracked federal funding to produce a rapid test for COVID-19. But it will be weeks before such technology is ready to be rolled out.
Front-line health-care workers have also been sounding the alarm about shortages of masks, gloves and other personal protective equipment they need to keep from getting infected while treating patients.
On Sunday, the Ontario Medical Association and the Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario released a statement warning about a potential shortage of masks, urging governments to do what they can to boost the supply.
Ontario and Alberta said Sunday they would reopen some child-care facilities to help health-care workers responding to the COVID-19 outbreak.
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