COVID-19 testing remains limited during new wave
Posted: April 7, 2022
(April 5, 2022)
By: Brigid Goulem, Kingston Whig-Standard (Print Edition)
Experts are calling for expanded access to publicly funded COVID-19 testing as COVID-19 cases continue to surge across Ontario.
On Dec. 30, 2021, the Ontario government limited the eligibility for PCR tests to those who are at the highest risk of severe outcomes and to those living and working in the highest-risk settings, citing the limited available resources of the health-care system.
As daily tests performed have dropped across Ontario, many are calling for the province to expand access to testing to give a clearer picture of the sixth wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Back in November, the Ontario government said in a news release that the province has the capacity to complete more than 100,000 PCR tests per day. However, as of April 2 only 16,001 tests were completed across the province.
Health-care advocates are concerned that decreased testing limits the ability of public health officials to fully understand the scale of COVID-19 in the province.
“As a result of these restrictive measures, the rate of COVID testing has declined precipitously, and it’s leaving infectious disease specialists and epidemiologists lamenting the fact that Ontario is now shooting in the dark when gauging the severity of this current sixth wave that we’re in,” Natalie Mehra, executive director of the Ontario Health Coalition, said in a media call last week.
Cathryn Hoy, president of the Ontario Nurses Association, echoed Mehra’s concerns, pointing out that a lack of testing limits the ability of public health units to respond to outbreaks and manage cases.
“Testing and tracing is a fundamental public health measure to monitor, manage and maintain COVID-19 outbreaks. If we don’t know where it’s happening, how can we manage the outbreaks?” she said.
Hoy joined the Ontario Health Coalition in calling on the province to expand access to publicly funded PCR testing and to stop relying on private partners to provide testing – sometimes for a fee.
Currently, COVID-19 PCR tests are available for those who do are not eligible for publicly funded tests for a fee through private partners such as LifeLabs, Shoppers Drug Mart and Toronto-based Switch Health.
“Testing is available privately for those who can afford to spend hundreds of dollars, while public testing is restricted. For those who cannot afford COVID testing, it must remain within our public health-care system and not limited to private providers who can charge these high fees for access,” Hoy said. “If significant fees are charged to gain access (to tests), people will just go without and unknowingly spread COVID among their community and their loved ones.”
The Health Ministry responded to concerns from the Ontario Health Coalition that eligible individuals were being charged fees for COVID-19 tests at private clinics.
“Private clinics are only to offer and charge individuals for COVID-19 PCR tests that fall outside provincial guidance (this includes PCR testing for travel purposes). The government does not have oversight over what companies charge for private testing. If a person is charged for a COVID-19 test that is covered within the current provincial guidance, the person can email email@example.com and the ministry will investigate,” the Health Ministry stated in an email to the Whig-Standard.
According to Dr. Gerald Evans, an infectious disease specialist at Kingston Health Sciences Centre and member of the Ontario COVID-19 Science Table, expanding COVID-19 testing beyond the highest-risk settings would give experts and public health officials a clearer idea of the ongoing spread.
“I think testing should be expanded, and then we’ll get a much better idea of how extensive infections are, which would tell us a lot about where things are heading and what we should do with the problem,” Evans said in an interview with the Whig-Standard.
While Evans would like to see testing expanded, he thinks it is unlikely to happen as current low case numbers help to justify the easing of pandemic measures.
“The problem is nobody wants to do that. Because part of getting yourself out of the pandemic that is perceived by people in public forums is if you just don’t test people, you won’t know how big and bad the problem is. And so you don’t. It kind of disappears, right?” he said. Dr. Piotr Oglaza, medical officer of health for Kingston, Frontenac and Lennox and Addington Public Health, said in a media call on Friday that he had not heard any discussion about expanding access to testing, but that rapid antigen tests can help individuals make decisions regarding risk assessment.
“I have not heard any discussions from the province regarding expanding eligibility for PCR testing – that remains a tool that’s reserved for the highest-risk settings. But for the general population, we do have access to the rapid antigen tests. These tests can be used to help determine whether the symptoms someone is experiencing could be from COVID-19. They are not ideal, but they’re widely available and they provide an answer in a much shorter timeline,” Oglaza explained.
While PCR tests remain limited to high-risk settings, those who are eligible can book tests through Kingston Health Sciences Centre, and those who are not eligible can receive free rapid antigen tests at participating pharmacies throughout Kingston. NUMBER OF ACTIVE CASES DOWN SINCE FRIDAY There are 315 new high-risk cases of COVID-19 in the Kingston, Frontenac and Lennox and Addington region since Friday, public health reported Monday.
The number of active cases among that group, however, has dipped to 522 from Friday’s number of 549.
The number of cases in intensive care also dipped, from five on Friday to three on Monday. The number of people hospitalized because of COVID-19 fell from 13 on Friday to 12 on Monday. Two patients are on ventilators.
Over the past seven days, 2,033 people have been swabbed at assessment centres, and the positivity rate has been 21.2 per cent. That’s a slight increase from Friday’s positivity rate of 20 per cent.
Two new outbreaks at institutions have been reported since Friday, too, and there are now 62 additional cases connected to outbreaks from Friday’s 600 to Monday’s 662.