Ontario ups capacity amid COVID-19 test backlog, technical issues at Telehealth

By Sabrina Nanji March 19, 2020

Health Minister Christine Elliott said the government is ramping up its COVID-19 lab capacity after the number of cases more than doubled overnight. 
 
Elliott said Wednesday she’s hoping to get up to 5,000 tests per day (it’s unclear how many tests are currently being conducted, but officials peg it at less than 2,000). She’s also looking to cut the turnaround time for results by half.
 
“A four-day wait is not acceptable,” Elliott said, noting the goal is between 24 and 48 hours. 
 
More people are asking for tests as pandemic fears escalate, Elliott explained. Compounding the problem is a shortage of test swabs, health officials say. 
 
As of Wednesday evening, there were 25 newly recorded COVID-19 cases for a total of 214 (five of which have been cleared). Another 3,378 tests were underway, up from 1,567 the day before. 
 
The government’s website was updated more than two hours behind schedule because there are more assessment centres reporting information. The province says it will have 25 more out-of-hospital testing sites up and running soon. 
 
The amount of information being released about new transmissions of the virus has fallen off majorly, which risks undermining transparency and public trust in the health-care system, experts tell the Globe and Mail. For example, the province is no longer reporting “presumptive confirmed” cases, like it had in January and February, and only the most recent daily transmissions are posted online, not the full list of cases. 
 
Most of the confirmed cases to date have been attributed to travel or close contact with an infected person. Ontario health officials have seemed reluctant to deem any cases community spread, though they say it can’t be ruled out. 
 
In contrast, top health officers in Toronto and Ottawa have been more willing to attribute local cases to community spread. Toronto’s medical officer of health Dr. Eileen de Villa says the city is currently investigating 11 cases thought to be transmitted through the community. 
 
Province delays Ontario Health Teams transition   
The Ford government also hit pause on its major health-care merger, saying the transfer of “funding, planning and coordination functions” from the 14 LHINs to Ontario Health Teams is being postponed to “a later date.” It was originally scheduled for April 1. 
 
Elliott said the decision will ensure the health-care system can focus its efforts on battling COVID-19 and was based on feedback from the Ontario Health super-agency. 
 
Meanwhile, technical glitches at Telehealth Ontario led to a service interruption on the phone lines Wednesday, with people being told to call their local public health unit instead if  experiencing flu-like symptoms, and to use the new online self-assessment tool. The province previously deployed 130 nurses to man additional lines and has enlisted the Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario to help recruit others.   
 
Countrywide, there are now over 700 diagnosed cases of COVID-19.