Ontario, Quebec dealing with high COVID testing demand as Omicron spreads

By Holly McKenzie-Sutter

Signs of strain on COVID-19 testing capacity emerged in Ontario and Quebec on Monday, prompting calls for limited resources to be prioritized for those who needed it most.

In Ontario, Ottawa Public Health advised the public of an “unprecedented surge” at testing sites that’s left the centres unable to keep up with demand. It asked residents to isolate if they have symptoms, receive a positive rapid test result or are exposed to a positive case.

The message posted on social media came after health workers in the city were warned of peaking demand in a memo from local health officials on Friday that stated testing was no long available in a “timely manner” to everyone.

The letter from the city’s associate medical officer of health said people with symptoms who can’t access a test should assume they have been infected with the Omicron variant and isolate for 10 days, regardless of their vaccination status. The isolation rules also apply to the symptomatic person’s household members.

“It is anticipated that existing testing capacity (both obtaining samples and processing in the labs) will need to be preserved for essential workers and to protect the most vulnerable sectors and populations,” the letter said.

A similar strain on testing resources was also reported in Kingston, Ont., last week, where community spread of Omicron led to a backlog in access to tests. Other local health officials have said they anticipate similar issues in their communities as cases rise rapidly.

In Quebec, testing centres were also seeing long waits for appointments and delays in results as the province continued to break records for its daily tally of cases.

Health Minister Christian Dube urged only residents with COVID-19 symptoms get tested, noting more than 45,000 tests were processed in the last few days.

“It’s a record since the beginning of the pandemic, and unfortunately, it’s our maximum capacity,” Dube said. “Testing centres should not be a tool to get tested if you’re asymptomatic and you want to gather with your loved ones.”

Dube asked residents to prioritize at-home rapid tests instead. Kits for those tests became available in pharmacies on Monday for people 14 and over. The government hopes to distribute more than 800,000 kits by the start of the holiday season

In Ontario, the province also started handing out rapid tests to the public at malls, liquor stores and other high-traffic locations last week, prompting long-lines and frustration from many who left empty-handed when supply ran out. Two million rapid tests have been allocated for distribution under that initiative, while others are being provided to workplaces, long-term care homes and other settings.

A spokeswoman for Health Minister Christine Elliott said Monday that Ontario is expecting 10 million more rapid tests from the federal government but “millions of tests” have been delayed until the new year.

“We continue to work closely with Health Canada to ensure that a sufficient supply of rapid antigen tests are on hand to deploy to the province, ensuring that high-risk sectors including hospitals and long-term care are prioritized for access,” Alexandra Hilkene said.

Mayors and chairs from the largest municipalities in the Toronto and Hamilton areas said in a statement Monday that they hoped frontline workers will get priority for rapid antigen test kits, “given their greater exposure and their inability to work from home.”

Currently, Ontarians who test positive on rapid antigen tests must confirm their results with a PCR test. But experts have warned that Omicron’s explosive growth may mean capacity to offer the gold-standard tests for all cases and contacts may run out.

In Peterborough, Ont., on Monday, the local public health unit started encouraging residents to report positive test results from rapid tests online to help track COVID-19 in the community.

Dr. Thomas Piggott, medical officer of health, shared the health unit’s QR code and instructions for residents, noting that reporting is “optional and confidential.”

Last week, Ontario’s top doctor said if testing capacity is maxed out, PCR tests will be reserved for people with active symptoms and congregate settings, with rapid tests offered to others.

The strain on testing comes as Omicron has rapidly become dominant in Ontario – the province’s expert pandemic advisers estimated it made up 83 per cent of cases as of Monday. Daily case counts have been logged near the 4,000 mark in recent days, with 3,784 reported on Monday.

In response, the province has started offering COVID-19 vaccine booster shots to all adults three months out from their second dose and reintroduced capacity limits on businesses and gatherings.

In Quebec, the government announced new restrictions Monday, with bars, movie theatres and entertainment venues ordered to close as of 5 p.m., while restaurants will operate at reduced capacity and have to close at 10 p.m.

– with files from Virginie Ann in Montreal.