Quebec still not hitting testing targets as Montreal prepares to reopen stores, ease restrictions

On May 1, Horacio Arruda, the province's public health director, set a new goal: 14,000 tests a day by the end of the week. Three weeks later, Quebec is still not hitting that target, and one epidemiologist says until it does, "Montreal is not ready" to reopen.

Legault says he's 'impatient' to ramp up testing, but expert says until that happens, 'Montreal is not ready'

The parking lot of Joseph-François-Perrault school in Montreal has been turned into a testing site in Montréal-Nord, part of efforts to ramp up screening in the city. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

As most retail stores in the Montreal area get set to reopen on Monday, Quebec has yet to administer 14,000 coronavirus tests in a day — a goal it set for itself three weeks ago. 

Without sufficient testing and more contact tracing, experts say, the province is depriving itself of an important tool for keeping the virus at bay at a point in the pandemic when more transmission is likely.

Along with the planned reopening of stores in Montreal, factories will also be allowed to resume operating at full capacity next week.

Quebec is also lifting restrictions on gatherings, allowing groups of up to 10 people from three households to meet, and permitting contactless sports. Outside the metropolitan Montreal area, elementary schools and daycares opened again earlier this month.

The latest figures released by public health show the province carried out 11,599 tests on May 19 and 9,582 the day before.

Since Dr. Horacio Arruda, the province's public health director, set the goal of 14,000 daily tests on May 1, the province has only twice cracked the 13,000 mark.

"This is one of the most important parts of safely reopening the economy," said Dr.Robert Platt, an epidemiologist at McGill University.

In the absence of a robust testing strategy, Platt said, maintaining physical distancing and other restrictions to limit the spread will be even more crucial.

"Ideally you have both," he said. "I think what it means is that [when] we reopen businesses, the businesses themselves and the people going out need to maintain the practices we've been talking about."

Timing and contact tracing

Epidemiologists note that testing allows public health officials not only to track the spread of the virus but, when combined with contact tracing, enables authorities to identify and isolate potential carriers of the disease. 

This process has taken on even more importance following studies that suggest between 30 and 50 per cent of those infected with COVID-19 are asymptomatic but contagious nonetheless. 

In Montreal — the epicentre of the outbreak in Canada — neither testing nor contact tracing are being conducted widely enough to significantly reduce the risks of reopening on Monday, said Dr. Nimâ Machouf, an epidemiologist and instructor in the school of public health at Université de Montréal.

"Contact tracing has always taken too long here," she told Radio-Canada, "because public health had its wings clipped to such an extent that it never had the army it needed to do contact tracing rapidly."

"This is an illness where time is extremely important."

The number of cases of COVID-19 in Montreal has finally started to fall, however, Machouf said she doesn't believe transmission rates in the city are low enough to press ahead just yet with easing restrictions. 

"In my opinion, Montreal is not ready. It's still too soon."

Legault 'impatient' about testing failures

On Thursday, Premier François Legault and Arruda were asked how they could justify reopening stores in Montreal despite being unable to hit the 14,000 target. 

Legault responded that he was "a bit impatient" about the failure. 

Quebec Premier François Legault said again Thursday increasing testing is a priority. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

In the past, Arruda has blamed the low numbers, in part, on people not showing up to be tested. In Montréal-Nord, one of the city's hot spots, the borough mayor took issue with that explanation.

Christine Black said public health should do a better job at making the testing available in the community, with shorter wait times and clearer guidelines.

Public health has since set up more testing sites, and a small fleet of city buses now carries out testing in targeted spots around the city.

A lack of staff to carry out the testing has also been a problem.

Quebec attempted to rectify the issue earlier this month, by authorizing a slew of health-care workers such as dentists, speech-language pathologists and physiotherapists to conduct the tests.

Quebec's order of speech-language pathologists and audiologists, for one, welcomed the decision but said it should have been made two months ago.

Ottawa prepared to help

Arruda has said he wants to conduct 30,000 tests a day to get a full portrait of the situation across the province.

That remains a lofty goal.

Ontario, as well, has failed to meet its testing targets. Health officials there aim for 16,000 tests daily. Even though it has missed the mark recently, the province has frequently been able to surpass that goal. 

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Thursday the federal government is in discussions with the provinces to see how to "scale up testing immediately in places where it's necessary, like in Ontario and Quebec."

"We don't want logistical or financial limitations to keep anywhere in this country held back from doing all of the testing that is necessary. that's what the federal government will be there for," Trudeau said.

With files from Radio-Canada

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