Two months after the City of Ottawa scrambled to expand its COVID-19 testing options to deal with a massive spike in demand, it is now set to cut back on hours at testing sites this weekend because far fewer people are showing up for swabs.
The decline mirrors what is happening in much of the rest of the country, with average daily testing numbers down more than 25 per cent compared to a month ago, even as positive cases soar.
On Oct. 15, the Public Health Agency of Canada reported an average of 77,000 COVID-19 tests had been completed each day over the previous week, the highest it had ever been. That fell to an average daily count of 61,000 a week ago, and to below 55,000 this week.
In mid-October, Canada had about 2,300 new cases of COVID-19 diagnosed each day. This week, that number grew to above 4,000.
Ontario, which on Thursday recorded its fifth record case total in the last six days, was aiming to have 68,000 tests daily by the middle of November. It hasn’t hit 40,000 tests once in those six days, and twice dropped below 30,000 tests per day.
The province averaged 38,273 tests per day in October, and this month so far the daily average is 33,870.
British Columbia averaged 9,369 tests last month. So far in November the average daily test count is 9,101..
In many provinces the testing numbers bounce around dramatically. In Quebec, the province tested 30,919 people on Nov. 5. Three days later, the number dropped below 19,000. By Nov. 10, it was back up over 30,000. B.C.’s testing counts in November range from fewer than 5,000 a day to more than 12,000.
In a written statement, the Public Health Agency of Canada said the federal government is working with provinces to increase testing capacity but said the focus shouldn’t be on the number of tests, but how those tests are being used.
“We need to test smartly and test the right people at the right time,” the written statement from officials said.
Dr. Howard Njoo, the deputy chief public health officer, said a week ago that most provinces changed criteria this fall to focus testing mostly on people with symptoms, high-risk settings like hospitals and long-term care homes, and people with known exposures to someone with COVID-19.
“I think people are now recognizing that the best approach could or should be more focused that it may not be the best use of resources and it may actually sort of slow down the testing for those who actually need it,” he said Nov. 6.
Ontario’s testing system was unruly in September, leading the province to massively expand hours and locations of testing sites, create an appointment process, and change the criteria so people without symptoms didn’t clog the lines.
In Ottawa, the testing task force that in September was begging people not to get tested unless they had symptoms began last week to beg people to go get tests. Today, the weekend hours at one of the city’s main testing sites are being cut from 11 hours a day to eight because so many appointments were going unfilled.
Ottawa public health chief Dr. Vera Etches said weekends have become particularly slow. She said the overall numbers have come back a bit from earlier in November and didn’t express alarm that not enough people are being tested, saying it could be due to Ottawa’s declining infection rate.
Ottawa has mostly bucked Ontario’s trend of rising cases, with the infection rate falling from 70 per 100,000 people in mid-October to 38 this week. Toronto’s grew from 57 to almost 100 cases per 100,000 people over that time.
“You know, if the virus level is dropping, there may be more people without symptoms or fewer people with symptoms presenting to be tested,” Etches said.
But she said she still wants people to know if they have symptoms, even very mild ones, getting a test is the responsible thing to do because “we have to detect as much COVID as possible.”
“And so it is one of the things we’re watching and we continue to work with our partners that run the testing system to try to explore more,” she said.
“Why are people coming? Why are they not coming? You know, these are these are things that’s worth exploring for sure.”
Mia Rabson, The Canadian Press
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