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Expect to wait longer to book a COVID-19 test, Ontario's top doctor warns as Omicron surges

Ontario's chief medical officer of health is warning that demand is growing for COVID-19 tests as daily case counts surge due to the Omicron variant.

Dr. Kieran Moore says Ontario may use rapid tests to diagnose COVID-19 if PCR test shortages occur

"Increasing demand is making it more challenging to access timely testing. Individuals seeking test appointments may experience longer wait times in some areas of the province," Chief Medical Officer of Health for Ontario Dr. Kieran Moore told reporters on Tuesday. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

Ontario's chief medical officer of health is warning that demand is growing for COVID-19 tests as daily case counts surge due to the Omicron variant.

"Increasing demand is making it more challenging to access timely testing. Individuals seeking test appointments may experience longer wait times in some areas of the province," Dr. Kieran Moore told reporters on Tuesday.

Moore said at a Queen's Park news briefing that the province may use rapid antigen tests (RAT) to diagnose COVID-19 cases if public health units experience shortages of polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests. Ottawa Public Health reported on Monday that it has limited access to PCR tests because of a growth in cases involving the Omicron variant.

The approach to COVID-19 testing should be consistent across the province and the government will review over the next two days which public health units have shortages of PCR tests, Moore added.

"We're working on that," Moore said.

"I do agree that we need a consistent approach to both the testing and the advice to the public and that we have to anticipate that, as this virus continues to double every few days, which is what it wants to do, that we may have to put some limitations on the PCR and to be able to use RAT for diagnostic purposes if we don't have complete PCR."

PCR tests are needed to manage COVID-19 outbreaks, he said.

The Ontario government advises anyone who has received a positive result on a rapid antigen test to self-isolate and book a PCR test through a lab to confirm the results. 

Ottawa testing sites report 'unprecedented surge'

In a tweet on Monday, Ottawa Public Health said, "COVID-19 testing sites are experiencing an unprecedented surge and cannot keep up with demand." 

In a statement on Tuesday, the public health unit added, "The emergence of the Omicron variant has led to a large increase in the number of people testing positive for COVID-19 in Ottawa. 

"As a result, Ottawa Public Health is currently experiencing a backlog with its case and contact management system, resulting in delayed notifications to people who have tested positive for COVID-19 and their high-risk contacts." 

A man receives a free COVID-19 rapid antigen test kit at a pop-up site in Toronto's Yorkdale Shopping Mall on Thursday. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press)

Peterborough Public Health, meanwhile, is advising people to report positive test results from rapid antigen tests to the public health unit to enable it to get a sense of the scope of variant.

Dr. Thomas Piggott, medical officer of health for Peterborough Public Health, said in a statement on Tuesday that the results from rapid antigen tests will not be included in daily case counts.

"Peterborough Public Health is asking residents to submit the results of their rapid antigen tests for surveillance purposes. These self-reported results will not be considered as case data," Piggott said. 

"Peterborough Public Health is anticipating a surge in cases due to the Omicron variant and we are hoping that residents will use this confidential survey to assist in providing us with an understanding of the spread of COVID-19 in our region."

Ottawa Public Health, for its part, said it would study the feasibility of such an approach.

Turnaround times may increase, Ontario Health says

According to Ontario Health, the province's network of labs is completing 90 percent of PCR tests within two days of collection and 69 per cent within one day of collection, but it warned turnaround times are likely to increase as the COVID-19 surge gets more intense.

Ontario may use rapid antigen tests to diagnose COVID-19 cases if there are shortages of polymerase chain reaction tests, the province's chief medical officer of health said on Tuesday. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press)

"Laboratories across the province continue to work together to provide test results as quickly as possible and, when necessary, specimen samples can be routed between laboratories to best manage testing volumes," Ontario Health said.

The agency added their test turnaround times are likely to increase as volumes increase.

Ontario Health noted that Moore has said people with active symptoms, especially those in congregate settings, should be given priority for PCR tests.

With files from Chris Glover

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