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People line up at a mobile COVID-19 testing clinic, in Montreal, on May 19, 2020. Trudeau said the government hopes to recommend a smartphone app next month that could play a part in the contact tracing effort.

Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press

Canada must ramp up its efforts to test residents for COVID-19 and trace anyone who may have come into contact with the virus, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Friday as he urged provinces to seek federal help with the process if needed.

The call for action came as the number of new cases continued to increase in Ontario – one of the provinces hardest-hit by the virus. Economic recovery efforts, meanwhile, forged ahead in New Brunswick while Alberta announced regional public health restrictions would be easing imminently.

Trudeau offered few specifics when announcing measures to support national testing and contact tracing efforts, but said such measures would be essential to control the pandemic now and in the future.

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“Taking strong, collaborative action to expand testing and contact tracing is important for both Canadians and businesses to have confidence that we’re on the right foot,” Trudeau said at his daily news conference. “They need to know that we have a co-ordinated approach to gradually reopen that is rooted in evidence, science and the ability to rapidly detect and control any future outbreaks.”

Trudeau said the government hopes to recommend a smartphone app next month that could play a part in the contact tracing effort, noting similar efforts in countries such as Singapore and South Korea have been successful to date.

More than a week after talking about launching a nationwide plan to improve testing, contact-tracing and data-sharing to control COVID-19, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau repeated Friday why such a strategy is important. The Canadian Press

Ottawa is helping procure swabs and other key testing materials, he said, and is also able to provide thousands of staff to help make contact tracing calls.

Trudeau noted some of those resources are already being deployed in Ontario, where testing has re-emerged as an issue amid stubbornly static COVID-19 case data.

Ministry of Health data shows the province currently has capacity to conduct 21,000 tests a day – about twice the number of tests conducted in recent days. Ontario’s growth rate of new cases, meanwhile, has hovered between 1.5 and 1.9 per cent for 12 of the last 13 days, including Friday when the number of new diagnoses climbed 1.8 per cent.

The national picture is similar, with provinces and territories collectively testing less than half of the roughly 60,000 people the country’s chief public health officer said should be the daily target.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford said the province will concentrate on testing front-line workers over the weekend, with plans to roll out an advertising blitz in the coming weeks urging anyone showing COVID-19 symptoms to get tested.

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“I drive by one of the assessment centres into work every morning and there’s just no lineup,” he said. “Please, go out and get tested. It’s absolutely critical.”

Trudeau said some provinces have capacity to increase testing and contact tracing efforts without federal aid.

One such province, New Brunswick, moved into the next phase of its economic revival on Friday by allowing hair stylists, tattoo parlours and other “close-contact” businesses to reopen their doors effective Friday. Fitness facilities and places of worship will be among those businesses reopening later on under this phase of the provincial plan, which will unspool gradually over the next several weeks.

Premier Blaine Higgs also said residents could begin expanding their immediate social “bubbles” ahead of a planned increase in the number of people allowed in public gatherings set to take effect next week.

“You can now spend time with close friends and family members who you would normally see on a regular basis,” Higgs said. “We are asking you to keep your circle of friends and family as small and reasonable as possible, especially if you have a vulnerable person in your family, or a child who attends daycare.”

In Alberta, meanwhile, Premier Jason Kenney said the hard-hit cities of Calgary and Brooks would soon be joining the rest of the province in reopening large swaths of the local economy. Personal service businesses and other similar services will reopen in those jurisdictions as of Monday, restaurants will allow dine-in options at 50 per cent capacity, and day camps and summer schools will be allowed to resume if appropriate physical distancing measures are in place.

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But more grim economic news continued to trickle in Friday, with national data showing retail sales plunged 10 per cent in March, when widespread physical distancing measures first took effect. Statistics Canada said preliminary data indicates the decline will be even steeper in April.

Canada has reported more than 82,000 cases of COVID-19, including just over 6,200 deaths.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says Ottawa and the provinces are still working out how to combine forces on a national strategy for improving COVID-19 testing and tracing the contacts of people infected with the novel coronavirus. The Canadian Press

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