Canada is on track to complete its millionth test for COVID-19 sometime in the next 24 hours but is still falling far short of the number of daily tests Canada’s chief public health officer said last month should soon be possible.
Dr. Theresa Tam said Wednesday there are still positive signs the spread of COVID-19 is slowing in most of the country though she continues to express concerns about outbreaks in long-term care homes and in the remote community of La Loche, Sask.
Tam said health workers are now going door-to-door in La Loche, a Dene village 600 kilometres northwest of Saskatoon, trying to search out infections after the virus began to spread rapidly in recent days. Tam said officials are taking the outbreak “extremely seriously.”
Keeping the virus out of remote locations was a key goal for public health officials, who acknowledged testing and treating patients who live far from full-access medical facilities would not be easy.
Tam also said the number of deaths in Canada from COVID-19 — more than 4,100 on Wednesday — is higher than the 3,883 anticipated by national projections for the illness at this point, because so many of the people getting sick are elderly residents in group settings like nursing homes and retirement residences.
More than three-quarters of the deaths are connected with those facilities.
Quebec is moving to lift some restrictions on visitors to the province’s private retirement residences, even as the number of soldiers going to help care for patients in long-term care homes grows. Treasury Board President Jean-Yves Duclos said more than 700 members of the military are already on the ground at 13 facilities in Quebec, and at least 300 more are expected to be deployed soon to seven additional homes.
Ontario, where more than 200 long-term-care homes have reported outbreaks, is not following suit. Ontario Premier Doug Ford said his province was “nowhere close” to being ready to allow visitors in or allow residents to go outside. He called it a “massive risk” to do so at the moment.
Ford did not apologize for blasting some regional public health officials Tuesday who he claims are falling down on the job of ensuring enough tests were completed. He said it wasn’t meant to be personal but everyone has to be held accountable.
Ontario lagged behind its goal of 16,000 tests for the second day in a row Wednesday, completing fewer than 13,000 tests in the last 24 hours.
Nationally, Tam said Canada has now completed 970,000 tests, with about 30,000 of them done in the last 24 hours. Canada has averaged more than 28,000 tests a day over the last week, putting the country on course to hit the one-million mark likely sometime on Wednesday or Thursday.
Two weeks ago Tam said she believed the provinces had the capacity to expand to 60,000 tests a day. So far, the most done in a day is 42,000 on April 30.
Tam said more provinces are expanding their testing criteria, including to people with wider ranging symptoms, or very mild symptoms, as everyone begins to move towards the new normal of “living with COVID-19.”
“For sure that many jurisdictions now are opening up clinics where people with even mild symptoms can get tested, so that is definitely happening,” she said.
Expanding testing is needed to try to see if there is any community spread of COVID-19 that has not yet been detected. With limited capacity, tests have looked mostly at people with very specific symptoms or in specific situations, such as long-term care homes and health workers.
Tam said the number of tests being completed is critical as provinces begin to reopen their economies and the spread of the virus in Canada continues to slow. Being able to test suspected cases and then trace all their contacts to prevent another spike in cases is fundamental to Canada’s learning to live with COVID-19, Tam said.
She also stressed that because this virus is being spread by people who have no symptoms, reopening schools and businesses requires a continued effort to physically distance individuals from each other, and regular hand washing.
Alberta announced Tuesday it intended to spend $4.5 million to double its daily test numbers from 7,000 to 14,000.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau did not hold his regular daily COVID-19 briefing Wednesday, as he attended a repatriation ceremony for six Canadian soldiers killed when their helicopter crashed last week.
The House of Commons is holding its second in-person sitting of the special COVID-19 committee in Ottawa, where opposition parties are grilling the government on its response plan.
Mia Rabson, The Canadian Press