Ontario is scaling back testing as COVID-19 surges. But 'we don't need to know' daily case counts, expert says

Testing reduction means Ontarians will have a less accurate picture of COVID-19 case numbers in the community. But for Dr. Sumon Chakrabatri, that’s just fine.

Some feel 'left in the dark,' as province reduces PCR and rapid COVID-19 testing

A woman wearing a mask, gloves and other protective gear carries out a nose swab on a man.
A COVID-19 test is performed at Toronto's Pearson International Airport. Ontario is moving away from the mass testing regime it has been running for most of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Alexander Brovedani was tested for COVID-19 on Dec. 23 of last year and still doesn't have his results.

For more than two weeks, he's had a cough and is still feeling dizzy, as well as the effects of "brain fog".

Brovedani is a stand-up comedian so with clubs and theatres shuttered by the Ontario government, he doesn't need test results for work. He's isolating at home after getting a positive result on a rapid antigen test. But he would still like a PCR test to be more certain if he has COVID-19. 

"I'm doing it for peace of mind, for my loved ones," Brovedani said in an interview. "I feel left in the dark."

Recent changes to Ontario's COVID-19 testing strategy will see access to publicly funded PCR testing restricted to prioritized groups.

And along with keeping potentially infected people like Brovedani in the dark about their COVID-19 status, it will also mean that Ontarians will have a less accurate picture of case numbers in the community. 

'We don't need to know'

Some infectious disease experts have spoken out against the province's decision to scale back testing, as well as other measures. But for Dr. Sumon Chakrabarti, the move makes sense.

"The vast majority of the population is now protected with two doses of vaccine. We don't need to know the case number every day, and we certainly don't need to be publishing it on the news every morning."

The infectious disease specialist at Trillium Health Partners in Mississauga says the province is shifting back to the way it tracked viruses pre-pandemic, since COVID-19 case counts are not as closely aligned with severe illness and hospitalization as they were before mass immunization.

Infectious diseases specialist Dr. Sumon Chakrabarti says Ontario is moving in the right direction by starting to reduce the number of COVID-19 tests. (Dr. Sumon Chakrabarti)

"We don't need to test every single person that gets mild symptoms," Chakrabarti said in an interview. "Generally, what we do is we keep a surveillance of what happens at high-risk settings like long-term care and hospitals."

Testing system overwhelmed

In late December, the government restricted eligibility for publicly funded PCR tests to high-risk individuals who are symptomatic or who are at risk of severe illness from COVID-19. As well, the province announced that most people who test positive on a rapid antigen test will no longer be required to confirm their diagnosis with a PCR test.

And on Thursday, the government moved to reduce access to rapid antigen testing to prioritized groups, including health care workers. The backdrop for the government's changes to the rules is a backlog of testing in the system

The CEO of the Medical Laboratory Professionals' Association of Ontario, Michelle Hoad, agrees with the province's move, and believes they will alleviate the stress on laboratories struggling to keep up.

According to Hoad, Ontario's medical labs were already understaffed when the pandemic began; and now they're overwhelmed

"Labs have called people back from vacation. The manpower needed just to keep up with the demand in Ontario is incredibly large," Hoad said in an interview.

She adds that while the Ontario government has done a good job of supplying the equipment and instruments for testing samples, labs just don't have the administrative staff to interpret and process them.

Like almost all other work forces, medical labs are also dealing with an increasing number of employees missing work due to COVID-19 infections.

Focus on hospitals, ICU

Chakrabarti says at this point tracking hospitalizations and intensive care admissions is the better way to measure the impact COVID-19 is having on society.

Of course, the shift away from mass testing will leave people like Alexander Brovedani nervously wondering if they have COVID-19. But Chakrabarti says they should follow isolation requirements and focus on recovery.

"I understand the anxiety. But at this point in time, you can have solace knowing that you're protected against severe disease with vaccination, and if you're worried about family members, just wait five days from the start of your symptoms and then you can go and see them."

Chakrabarti says there will have be cultural shift away from the obsessive tracking of positive tests we've become used to. And he thinks we'll be better off.

"If [the number of cases] is going up, people get really anxious. If it's going down, people feel good. That rollercoaster of emotions is not something we need to do in our daily lives."


Trevor Dunn is an award-winning journalist with CBC Toronto. Since 2008 he's covered a variety of topics, ranging from local and national politics to technology on the South American countryside. Trevor is interested in uncovering news: real estate, crime, corruption, art, sports. Reach out to him. Se habla español.