'Do not expand assessment centres,' memo from province tells local health officials

Ontario Health's memo to the region's local health officials is blunt: "Do not proceed with any new growth or expansion of assessment centres at this time."

The memo was sent on Friday and includes a spreadsheet showing targets for testing

Long lines are normal at London's assessment centres. (Kate Dubinski/CBC)

Ontario Health's memo to some of southwestern Ontario's local health officials is blunt: "Do not proceed with any new growth or expansion of assessment centres at this time."

The memo, obtained by CBC London, asks health authorities running COVID-19 assessment centres, including the two in London, to hold the line on the amount of testing they do this week. That's despite line ups that begin well before dawn, and reach capacity before noon, as was the case Tuesday.  

"In order to stabilize the provincial laboratory network and maintain the ability to deliver timely and accurate results, testing volumes are being closely monitored and may need to be allocated according to Assessment Centre," Mark Walton, Ontario Health's West Regional Lead, wrote in the email.

"As a result, please do not proceed with any new growth or expansion of assessment centres at this time," Walton said.  

The memo was sent on Friday, Sept. 25 to public health officials in Middlesex-London, Huron-Perth, Oxford, Elgin and Grey-Bruce counties. It includes a spreadsheet showing targets for testing.

For the entire southwest region, the "projected target capacity" this week is 2,132 per day, with a "confirmed capacity" of 2,663 per day. The "potential estimated capacity" for next week, marked "not final" in the chart, is 2,673 per day.

That's 10 additional tests per day allotted across the region at a time when case counts are going up to record numbers. 

The projected capacity for daily tests at the Carling Heights Assessment Centre is listed at 434, and the confirmed number is 750. At the Oakridge site, the projected capacity is 303, with a confirmed capacity of 200, according to the spreadsheet. 

Those two sites, along with the Western University testing trailer and the Middlesex Health Alliance (the hospital in Strathroy) are listed as "hot spots."

Western and Strathroy have confirmed capacities of zero on the chart. 

The Western and Strathory sites are listed as "zero" because Western is funded through a different stream and because a testing centre in Strathroy hasn't been confirmed yet, said Karen Bell, the testing lead for Ontario Health's west region. 

As one of the authors of the memo, Bell says the data is for planning purposes only. She says it's aimed at shifting where tests are done, so if an outbreak occurs, assessment centres will be able to deal with the increased demand. 

At-risk populations a priority

"The system is experiencing new growth and expansion, but we have to plan around the assessment centres," Bell told CBC London about the local numbers. "We need assessment centres to be able to respond in the event that there's an outbreak."

Meanwhile, the health ministry maintains it is not putting caps or quotas on tests. That message was reiterated in a statement sent to CBC London Monday. 

"Minister of Health Christine Elliott has been unequivocal that there are to be no caps or quotas on testing. As we have said from the outset of the pandemic, everyone who needs a test must be able to access a test," ministry spokesperson Carly Luis said in a statement.

On Monday, Ontario hit a record 700 positive COVID-19 cases, the highest one-day total since the pandemic began. 

In Ottawa, which on Tuesday reported that city's highest daily count since the start of the pandemic, a similar memo demanded a cut to testing because provincial labs can't keep up, the Ottawa Citizen first reported. CBC Ottawa has since obtained a copy of that memo. 

Many assessment centres, including ones in London, were seeing up to 2/3 of people asking for tests arriving without any symptoms. The centres now no longer test asymptomatic people. 

Long lineups at the COVID assessment centre at the Carling Heights Optimist Community Centre, in London, Ont. (Sue Reid/CBC)

Those people are now being seen at pharmacies, with the list of locations expanding daily.

"Despite the fact that Ontario has built record lab-processing capacity of over 40,000 tests per day, until we have an accessible rapid test we must prioritize testing for at-risk populations including symptomatic individuals, workers and residents of high-risk settings, visitors of long-term care homes, and those who have been close contacts of a case," ministry spokesperson Luis said in a statement.