Ontario plans for 16,000 COVID-19 tests daily by May 6 amid mounting criticism over low testing

Provincial officials released a “renewed testing strategy” Friday, outlining their plan to quadruple COVID-19 testing capacity over the next month to reach 16,000 tests per day by May 6.

Provincial officials say they will be targeting vulnerable populations

Front line healthcare staff conduct drive-through COVID-19 testing at a specially-built facility near Etobicoke General Hospital in Toronto, on April 8, 2020. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Provincial officials released a "renewed testing strategy" Friday, outlining their plan to increase COVID-19 testing capacity to reach 16,000 tests per day by May 6.

The announcement comes as criticism mounts over low testing in Ontario, despite the province's daily testing capacity of 13,000. The province reported just 4,097 new test results Thursday and 5,573 Friday.

The number of cases in the province has risen to 6,237 — a jump of 478 — and the number of deaths reached 245, according to numbers compiled by CBC News. 

According to the strategy, the province aims to conduct 8,000 tests a day by April 15 and 14,000 by April 29.

The plan targets populations most vulnerable to the virus, including long-term care home residents and symptomatic health-care workers.

Officials say that by May 6, only a quarter of those being tested will have been referred to assessment centres. 

The rest of the tests will go to symptomatic members of at-risk populations, including those in Indigenous and remote communities, people who live in homeless shelters or prisons, and health-care workers.

"By expanding our testing capacity, we will be able to find cases faster, intervene earlier, reduce the spread and save lives," Premier Doug Ford said in a news release.

Ramping up tests

With the backlog in tests now clear, officials say they have the laboratory testing capacity to reach their new goal.

The plan hinges on the province's ability to continue adding to their stockpile of testing supplies.

Right now, officials say they have about 200,000 swabs, enough to test for seven to 10 days, and they are speaking with assessment centres daily to ensure they have what they need. 

The province's 34 public health units (PHUs) are also ramping-up their ability to do local contact tracing by employing dozens of volunteer medical students. 

The role of contact tracers is to make daily phone calls for 14 days to people who've been in contact with someone who has tested positive to ensure they are not experiencing symptoms, and point them in the right direction if they are.

The province has also recruited more than 200 Health Canada volunteers to help conduct the calls. They are expected to begin working next week.

"By significantly increasing the number of tests each day, we will identify cases early, contain them and prevent putting more people at risk," said health minister Christine Elliott.

New testing directives at long-term care homes

A memo from Ontario's chief medical officer of health gave new directives for testing Thursday, saying all new admissions or readmissions to long-term care or retirement homes should be tested, regardless of symptoms, as well as any resident whose had contact with a confirmed case.

Dr. David Williams said all health-care providers working at the facilities are being directed to wear masks at all times — whether the home is experiencing an outbreak or not — and limit their work locations. 

Tests should be also conducted on residents with atypical presentations, the memo said.

The expanded guidance stopped short of a call by Ford earlier in the week for every long-term care resident, front-line health-care worker and first responder to be tested.

Asymptomatic testing

Friday's strategy also reiterated the province's stance that asymptomatic people who are not at high-risk should not be tested as it could provide a false negative, and it would waste valuable resources.

"We can't have a rush to the assessment centres if someone doesn't have symptoms," Ford said.

Health officials say clinicians can use their own discretion when considering who should be tested.

To date, the province has conducted more than 94,000 tests.