Ontario is facing a shortage of diagnostic technicians that is contributing to medical laboratories being overwhelmed, Premier Doug Ford said Monday, acknowledging the province is reaching its limit when it comes to testing for COVID-19.
Ford stressed that the demand for the services of the technicians and a worldwide shortage in the chemicals needed to process tests are both reasons why the province has developed a significant backlog of unprocessed tests.
The government continues to reach out to universities and private laboratories to bolster its testing capacity, Ford said, as Ontario recorded a backlog of approximately 68,000 tests Monday.
“We have an issue with getting enough diagnostic lab technicians, we're reaching out right across the province,” he said.
The comments came after Ontario changed its testing guidance last week, asking only people with COVID-19 symptoms or those who are in high risk groups to get tested.
The updated guidelines also say assessment centres will no longer accept walk-ins, and will move to an appointment-based system starting Tuesday.
The move was made to cut increasing demand at the centres, which had hours-long lines and were turning people away. The province said many of those lining up for tests were doing so to seek reassurance, but did not need an assessment for the virus.
Meanwhile, the province said it was sending 200 workers to Toronto to help with contact tracing after the city said over the weekend that it was suspending most of those efforts.
Ford's spokesman said the government was also urging Toronto to move to the province's case and contact management system, which 30 of Ontario's health units have done.
“Doing so would allow the province to quickly re-allocate personnel from other public health units with lower rates of transmission to support this important function,” Travis Kann said in a statement.
On Saturday, Toronto Public Health said the rapid increase in the city's case load made a “strategic shift” necessary in its approach to tracing those who may have been in contact with a COVID-19 patient.
Officials previously tried to connect with all close contacts of infected residents, but the current case load makes such an approach unsustainable, the unit said.
Toronto's medical officer of health said Monday the province needs to take broader action to bring case counts down to a point were contract tracing is once again managable.
Eileen De Villa repeated a call first made Friday for the province to ban indoor restaurant and bar service for four weeks - two incubation periods for the virus - suspend indoor fitness classes and sports, and ask people to only leave their homes for essential trips.
“It's that level of public health measure and intervention that brings down the amount of social interaction ... and therefore is most effective,” she said.
Ford pushed back against De Villa's call, saying Monday that he needed to see more data before making the broad changes being sought.
“I can't make a willy-nilly decision and just close everything down,” he said. “I need to see hard evidence.”
Meanwhile, later Monday, the province's associate medical officer of health moved to clarify Ontario's stance surrounding social bubbles.
Late last week, the province said the 10-person social bubble concept was “paused” across Ontario in light of the recent surge in cases.
Dr. Barbara Yaffe said people are now asked to reserve close contact to only people they live with, including for Thanksgiving Day weekend.
“The social circle at this point is not relevant,” she said. “It was relevant, (but) as we go along this outbreak is changing. We're learning. It's evolving. Given the current picture we're saying stick to your household.”
Ontario reported 615 new cases of COVID-19 on Monday, and five new deaths due to the virus.
Health Minister Christine Elliott said 289 cases were in Toronto, 88 in Peel Region and 81 in Ottawa. She said 58 per cent of those cases were in people under the age of 40.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published October 5, 2020.