TORONTO—Premier Doug Ford is vowing to increase COVID-19 testing after several days of low numbers, while also warning he will re-enact restrictions if the amount of new cases climbs.
Despite fewer than 10,000 tests being completed in each of the past three days – levels half or even a third of what was being done last week – the numbers of new cases is holding relatively steady.
“We’re watching the trends like a hawk right now,” Ford said Wednesday. “We’re watching the rate of the spread. We’re watching closely for any sudden surges or flare-ups.... We won’t hesitate to roll things back if necessary.”
Ford’s caution came just one day after Ontario officially entered first stage of its reopening plan, with retail stores now allowed to welcome customers inside with certain restrictions in place, and some sports and other activities resuming.
Ontario reported 390 new COVID-19 cases Wednesday, and 43 more deaths. That brings the provincial total to 23,774 cases, an increase of 1.7 per cent over the previous day.
The total includes 1,962 deaths and 18,190 resolved cases.
The province’s growth rate has hovered between 1.5 and 1.9 per cent for 10 of the past 11 days, with the lone exception a 1.3 per cent increase on Monday.
Ontario’s chief medical officer of health said the province is compiling more granular data, to try to understand what is happening with the numbers.
“I think the numbers, because it did go up, we’re looking at that very eagerly at this time to say is it really a significant change?” said Dr. David Williams.
“I would say at the moment because it hasn’t come down as quickly as I would like, that’s why I want to be cautious on our removal of large-scale aspects and our measures in stage one.”
The province reported Wednesday that the number of tests completed in the previous day was just 7,382. On Tuesday it was 5,813 and on Monday it was 9,155 – well below the approximately 17,000 per day that had been completed in the days before that.
A testing blitz of every long-term care resident and staff member was completed over the weekend and after that the numbers of daily completed tests dropped sharply. Health officials have said a large influx of people looking for tests did not materialize over the long weekend.
The low numbers come at a time when Ontario is trying to work toward doing 20,000 tests a day.
“I recognize that the numbers weren’t there,” Ford said of the testing rates. “It kind of shocked me too. But in saying that, we have a strong plan ... to ramp up the testing.”
Health Minister Christine Elliott said criteria for members of the public has been expanded so that anyone with symptoms can get tested, and the province is now looking to focus on retirement homes and other group living settings.
“We’re looking at solutions for that and how we can get teams in there quickly and do that testing to make sure that we really understand what’s happening in the community,” she said.
“We can’t open things up to stage two until we can fully assess what the effects of stage one are on the community, so testing becomes all the more important. And we do have a plan to ramp it up considerably.”
Williams said the province is looking at removing some barriers to access tests at assessment centres, saying some people are still unsure about the process.
Ford has previously expressed frustration with testing levels on several occasions. In early April, when the province was conducting fewer than 4,000 tests a day despite a capacity then of 13,000, Ford said his patience had worn thin.
Ontario at first didn’t have enough assessment centres, then there were not enough labs to process the tests, then the supplies of reagent – key chemicals needed for testing – were low.
Guidelines and criteria were expanded, and the province focused on priority groups such as health-care workers. But still, early this month testing was below the 16,000 per day the province pledged to do by the beginning of May.
Ford delivered a sharp rebuke to half of Ontario’s regional medical officers of health, blaming them for low testing rates.
The government had previously promised to reach 18,900 tests a day by mid-April.
Also on Wednesday, Ontario advised members of the public to wear a non-medical mask when physical distancing of two metres isn’t possible. The recommendation is in line with new guidelines from the federal government.
Health officials strongly recommend that people wear such masks when using public transit.