No cap or quotas on testing, Ontario health minister says

The office of Ontario's health minister has disavowed a memo from Ontario Health stating the province would cap COVID-19 testing in Ottawa and surrounding regions. 

Ontario Health memo suggested testing capacity 'paused' in Ottawa, surrounding area

A paramedic administers a nasal swab at a drive-thru COVID-19 test centre outside the Canadian Tire Centre in Ottawa earlier this month. The office Ontario's health minister denies the province has placed a cap on the number of swabs issued in eastern Ontario. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

The office of Ontario's health minister has disavowed a memo from Ontario Health stating the province would cap COVID-19 testing in Ottawa and surrounding regions. 

The memo from Darryl Tooley, director of sub-region planning and integration with Ontario Health East, called for "a pause in increasing testing capacity" in anticipation of growing demand caused by the second wave of COVID-19, coupled with the arrival of flu season.

"Per multiple meetings last week, the provincial lab system is not able to keep up with the significant increase in volumes over the past few weeks," Tooley wrote. "The province has made it clear that, until the lab system is able to adequately increase capacity, there needs to be a pause on any additional capacity added to testing." 

The memo states those provincial teams estimate the region would need to reduce its testing capacity by about 1,215 swabs each day. A source who sent the memo to CBC News said testing sites were told to cap at 68 per cent of last week's total number of swabs. 

But Carly Luis, Health Minister Christine Elliott's director of communications, said Monday the memo, which was issued Sunday night, does not represent the minister's views.

"The memo referred to was not reviewed or approved by Minister Elliott, and she has since been unequivocal that there are to be no caps or quotas on testing," wrote Luis.

Cases soar in Ontario, Ottawa

Public health officials have said Ottawa is already in the grips of the pandemic's second wave, with 90 new cases of COVID-19 on Monday and 106 on Tuesday, a new daily record. Already, September has surpassed April in terms of new COVID-19 cases in the city.

"As we have said from the outset of the pandemic, everyone who needs a test must be able to access a test," Luis wrote. "That is why we issued updated testing guidance last week."

Those guidelines put a greater emphasis on testing symptomatic people. 

According to Elliott's office, although the province has built lab processing capacity to over 40,000 tests a day, a greater priority needs to be placed on checking at-risk populations, including symptomatic people, workers and residents of high-risk settings, visitors of long-term care homes and people who have been in close contact with a confirmed case. 

"Our public health officials have advised that this updated guidance will help ensure those individuals have access to a timely test," Luis said. "As always, our number one priority is to protect the health and safety of Ontarians and that is what we are focused on with this updated testing guidance."

According to Tooley, since those guidelines came into place and pharmacies began providing COVID-19 testing, the initial numbers indicate a decrease in total swabs used.

"I will continue to monitor the situation daily and we may need to adjust within our region based on where the hotspots are and where the new guidelines [and] pharmacies appear to be reducing the demand," he wrote in the memo.

MPP calls messaging 'muddled'

Liberal MPP Stephen Blais, who represents Orléans, asked Elliott about the memo during question period on Tuesday.

Blais said he was astounded when he read the memo and described the government response as "muddled messaging," criticizing the Conservative government's preparedness for a second wave.

"The real question is, had whoever leaked this memo ... Sunday night not leaked the memo, would the government have even known?" Blais asked via Facetime on Tuesday afternoon. 

"If it wasn't for the whistleblower, the person who leaked the memo, there may have been a reduction in testing."

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now