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A medical worker collects information from people waiting in their cars at the Etobicoke General Hospital Drive-Thru coronavirus testing facility in Toronto on Sept. 18, 2020.

CARLOS OSORIO/Reuters

Kudos to the Ontario government for finding a way to conceal the veritable fiasco that is the state of COVID-19 testing in the province. No longer will images of winding queues outside hospitals or accounts of testing centres turning patients away plague the chronically lethargic Doug Ford government.

A sudden switch to COVID-19 testing by appointment only, announced last Friday, has meant that the lines that showcased the government’s incompetence have instantly become invisible. Instead, people are in their own homes, waiting hours on the phone or refreshing their browsers endlessly in vain attempts to snag test slots for days from now. Their results will be accessible only days from then, which together will mean a wasted week out of school or work for every Ontarian unlucky enough to become unwell. But hey, no long lines to make the government look bad.

An appointment-based system actually makes sense for the fall and winter months, when we don’t want to see parents and toddlers lining up in the cold for five-second swabs. But a prudent transition – one conceived before the province’s testing system was swallowed by a predictable increase in demand – would have maintained a walk-in option for those in vulnerable communities, including the homeless, the elderly and/or hearing impaired and those without reliable internet or phone connections. It also would have afforded both the public and regional health authorities time to transition to a new process for testing.

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Instead, the government switched to an appointment-only testing scheme so abruptly that people were confused about how and when they could get a test, and some assessment centres had to close for a day to overhaul their systems. That was amid a backlog of tests amounting to nearly twice Ontario’s daily lab processing capacity. Then there’s a shortage of lab technicians, unresolved challenges to secure globally in-demand machinery and reagent and a yet-unmet goal of processing 50,000 tests a day.

It is no wonder, then, that some individuals – and even some employers – have turned to private clinics for timely COVID-19 testing and results. Many of the clinics offer same-day appointments and results in a day or two for $50 to $200 a test, which would be a lesser cost even for low-wage workers if the alternative – waiting days for a test and then more days for results – is a week of lost wages.

There is, of course, vehement opposition to these clinics, including from the federal NDP, which opposed the opening of a private clinic on Parliament Hill for members of Parliament (the clinic that, notably, tested Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole for COVID-19 after he was turned away from a public line that was over capacity). Danyaal Raza, a family physician and chair of Canadian Doctors for Medicare, said in an interview with The Globe and Mail that the clinics allow for “jumping the queue in a time of crisis,” which he called “unconscionable.”

It is certainly unfair that those of certain status have access to timely testing and results while the rest of us are still at home refreshing our browsers. But it is hardly unconscionable when the public system is so atrociously inefficient and when private clinics can function mostly distinctly from the public system (acknowledging that supplies and personnel are plucked from a shared marketplace). Ontarians can already jump the health care queue with private MRI scans, paid-for preventive testing and all sorts of services provided by boutique medical clinics. So access to private COVID-19 testing now isn’t really breaking the mould.

And while it is nice, on an ideological level, that the NDP opposes special access to testing for its MPs, it would be incredibly annoying, in a practical sense, to have MPs or other privileged employees adding to public wait times and backlogs out of some fidelity to fairness when they have access to other options.

The Ontario government, for its part, says it will sort out this mess now that we are seven months into a pandemic and well into a predictable second wave of infections. Mr. Ford has promised to expand pharmacy testing, add additional testing locations, try to hire additional lab technicians and to reach out to private labs for processing support now that contact tracing in Toronto has fallen apart and Ottawa Public Health has resorted to a cry for help on Twitter.

The analogy of closing the barn door after the horse has bolted seems apt, except the horse in this case hasn’t just bolted – he’s out on the neighbour’s field, defecating on his crops, and Ontario only recently clued into the fact that it has a barn on its property.

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