Politics

O'Toole slams government over COVID-19 testing after waiting hours at Ottawa site

Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole denounced the current state of COVID-19 testing in Canada after his family waited hours at an Ottawa site Wednesday only to be turned away because of capacity issues.

Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole was later tested at a Quebec site that serves MPs and their families

Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole walks to his first caucus meeting with his chief of staff Tausha Michaud and campaign manager Fred DeLorey on Sept. 9, 2020 in Ottawa. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole denounced the current state of COVID-19 testing in Canada after his family waited hours at an Ottawa site Wednesday only to be turned away because of capacity issues.

O'Toole, his wife and their two children were tested this morning at a site in Gatineau, Que., which offers priority testing for MPs and their families.

The new Conservative leader is in self-isolation after being exposed to the virus; one of his staff members has tested positive for COVID-19. O'Toole had been travelling with this person in Quebec over the weekend and on Monday.

"While waiting in the COVID-19 testing line up, I was struck by how many families were waiting just like ours," O'Toole said of the unnamed Ottawa testing centre. "Children are being sent home from school to get tested, and it is hard for moms and dads to keep them calm."

The four testing sites in the city of Ottawa have been afflicted by hours-long waits over the last number of days as parents have scrambled to get their school-age children tested.

"The Trudeau Liberals have created this mess by refusing to approve other testing methods — despite all our allies having, for months, multiple tests including much faster and less invasive methods," O'Toole said.

While the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved two antigen testing devices in May and July respectively — tests that can deliver results in less than 15 minutes — Health Canada regulators have not yet approved such products for use in this country.

Experts say this sort of rapid testing — which is used primarily on asymptomatic people and deployed at retailers like pharmacies — would take some of the pressure off the testing centres. Those sites could then be reserved for those experiencing symptoms, or those who have been in close contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19.

Health Minister Patty Hajdu said Wednesday that Health Canada is not yet satisfied with any of the options it has been reviewing for rapid COVID-19 testing devices — and they will not be deployed across the country until regulators are sure they'll meet a certain standard.

Hajdu dismissed U.S. approvals for such devices — Quidel Corporation's Sofia 2 SARS device and Becton Dickinson's Veritor System for Rapid Detection of SARS-CoV-2 — and said the regulators have real concerns about the accuracy of the testing despite assurances from the companies about their efficacy.

Both companies behind these devices and a third, Korean-based SD Biosensor, Inc., have applied for Health Canada approvals.

As of Thursday, all are listed as "under review."

"We will not at Health Canada approve a test that, in any way, endangers Canadians' health and I will say tests that don't have a degree of accuracy to the satisfaction of the regulators can actually create further harms in communities," Hajdu said.

Quidel claims its test has a 96.7 per cent sensitivity rate within five days of the onset of symptoms.

O'Toole said the regulatory delays have caused undue hardship for Canadians because while the current lab-based testing model — the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) process — is very accurate, it can take much longer to process.

"I stand with the thousands of Canadian families who are waiting in lines today for tests. It has been seven months. Justin Trudeau must answer for why we do not have access to more of the tests our allies are using," O'Toole said.

Michelle Rempel Garner, the Conservative Party's health critic, said Canada has been "outpaced" by other countries on the testing front and Prime Minister Trudeau needs to explain the lack of progress on approving new devices.

"Testing is the key to protecting both lives and jobs, and on this front Canadians are paying the cost of Trudeau's failures," she said in a media statement.

"Trudeau needs to do his job, get off his rear, spur Health Canada bureaucrats to overcome the inertia of bureaucracy and immediately work to find a safe solution. Enough is enough."

Dr. Andrew Morris, a professor at the University of Toronto and an expert in infectious diseases, said Health Canada hasn't been transparent with Canadians about why these alternative testing devices have been in a regulatory holding pattern for months.

"I think that would actually be quite useful for everyone to understand — what kind of sensitivity or specificity or what kind of predictive values  are they expecting from these tests. At the moment, we don't really know and that makes it very difficult for us to understand what Health Canada is expecting from these tests," he told CBC News.

He said that without access to more testing options, lines could grow even longer and results could take days to produce.

He said both levels of government should have anticipated a crush of people looking for test results with the return to school and childcare after a months-long pause.

"I think we are behind. It is a bit of a shame, to be honest, we're not further ahead," he said. "I'm hopeful that we'll hear some announcement in the next few weeks. I'm definitely looking forward to those tests. I would have liked to have seen those ready to roll by Labour Day. But, unfortunately, we don't have that right now and this is harming us."

"It was quite easy to anticipate that we would have a shortage of testing capability. So it is very unfortunate that we are in this situation right now."

In a statement, Hajdu said the government is committed to helping the provinces and territories build their testing capacity to avoid the delays O'Toole and his family experienced.

"We have been helping provinces and territories to respond to COVID-19 since the beginning. We know fast and accurate testing is key to keeping COVID-19 under control.

"The $19 billion we have given to provinces is to help them keep up with testing demand as we go back to school and work," she said, referring to the $19 billion the federal government has set aside as part of its "safe restart agreement."

Watch: Parents and kids face hours-long lines at COVID-19 testing centres 

Some parents and children in the hours-long lines at some Ottawa COVID-19 testing stations say they're forced to get their child tested for school or daycare while others are concerned about their child's health. There’s also frustration about repeated testing every time a child has the sniffles. 1:47

About the Author

John Paul Tasker

Parliamentary Bureau

John Paul (J.P.) Tasker is a reporter in the CBC's Parliamentary bureau in Ottawa. He can be reached at john.tasker@cbc.ca.

With files from the CBC's Tom Parry

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