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Ontario ‘seems unprepared,’critic asks why

Posted: April 3, 2020

(April 2, 2020)

By: Jane Sims, London Free Press

Natalie Mehra has watched the number of infected Ontarians rise and kept quiet.

She agrees Premier Doug Ford “is striking the right tone” during this crisis.

And she’s fully behind the praise given to health-care and front-line workers trying to tamp COVID-19 down.

But the executive director of the Ontario Health Coalition, a public health-care advocacy organization, has questions about why the country’s largest province has tested fewer people per capita than anywhere else.

She fears the answer might have everything to do with Ontario’s preparedness, or lack of it, once the virus wave began to hit.

“If we look at the concrete measures, the preparedness, how slow things have been to get off the ground here, I think we can now rightfully and in a completely non-partisan and public-interest way, be a lot more assertive here about saying: ‘Hey, what is going on?'” she said. “We can do a lot better in this province and we should be.”

Ontario’s response to the pandemic continues to ramp up with announcements Wednesday of more testing and faster results as the pace of infections quickens.

But, the coalition says Ontario should be striving for the gold standard recommended by the World Health Organization: to test and isolate virus victims, then rigorously track down close contacts for quarantine.

“When we don’t do these things, people die,” Mehra said.

“And by the worldwide evidence, many more people die.”

Mehra said the criteria for t esting are still too narrow. People without symptoms aren’t being tested; nor are people coming out of quarantine.

And there’s “no systematic testing of vulnerable populations or health-care workers in healthcare facilities,” she said.

She fears there hasn’t been enough tracking of close contacts and too much infection has gone unchecked.

Ontario ranks dead last in per-capita testing. One reason could be Ontario is Canada’s most populous province.

As of Wednesday’s news conference with Ontario’s chief medical officer of health, there had been almost 58,000 tests done province wide, but on a per-capita basis, that only amounts to 334 tests for every 100,000 people, the lowest rate in the country.

By Saturday, Quebec, with a smaller population than Ontario, had tested 65,900 people, 611 tests per 100,000 people.

Alberta and B.C. have tested about as many people as Ontario, but in those smaller provinces, the rates are much better: 1,020 per 100,000 people in Alberta, and 717 in British Columbia.

It’s no secret there’s a shortage of tests and testing agents worldwide, but the coalition wants to know why other provinces still tested more.

Mehra’s biggest concern is what happened after March 12, when Ford told Ontarians to “go away, have a good time, enjoy yourselves” on March break vacations.

Obviously, the world changed within hours.

Within days, the province was rolling out its testing regimen and asked Ontarians, if they felt sick, to review the online assessment tool and contact their primary care provider, health unit or Telehealth Ontario before visiting one of almost 60 assessment centres across the province.

Those are too many steps for the sick, Mehra said, and both public health units and Telehealth have been choked with calls.

More alarming was how hard it was to find assessment centres. Mehra said she thought they’d be listed on the province’s COVID-19 website. They weren’t.

The coalition wanted a list.

They started with the health units, but they were swamped. They moved on to the hospitals, local media and canvassed their own members.

Mehra said they found out each centre had different standards. Some, like the two in London, triaged patients to keep them away from emergency and urgent care centres.

Some centres offered testing on site. Others prohibited walk-in traffic. And some didn’t publicize their locations, fearing they’d be overwhelmed. One such centre was in Sarnia, which, in recent days, has seen a frightening cluster of cases and deaths.

Every day at public briefings, the Ontario government has been at the forefront of social distancing policies and demanding compliance, including a vow to ticket those who don’t comply.

But Wednesday, Ford warned: “The hard truth is right now, today, there’s very little separating what we will face here in Ontario from the devastation we’ve seen in Italy and Spain.”

And Mehra is left with a lingering feeling that perhaps the province wasn’t as ready as it should have been.

A national pandemic plan was finished in January, Mehra said.

“What happened from January to March?” she asked. “How come we seem to be so completely unprepared?”

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