TORONTO — Premier Doug Ford is promising to expand access to COVID-19 testing and “severe” punishment for people breaking public health rules during social gatherings as his government tries to address a recent increase in virus rates in communities across the province.
Ford said Wednesday that the province expects to strike a deal with thousands of pharmacies across Ontario that will allow them to provide COVID-19 testing to asymptomatic people, relieving the burden on the current 148 assessment centres which have seen hours’ long line ups for their services for days.
He said the current assessment centres — many of which are run by hospitals — will soon focus on testing symptomatic people once pharmacies start offering the service.
Ford also pledged a tightening of public health guidelines around social gatherings — and stiff fines for those who break the rules — as health officials blame the events for contributing to an increase in daily case counts.
“There’s going to be some severe fines for people who want to ignore the regulations,” Ford said. “They’re going to be the highest (fines) in the country and they’re going to be under provincial jurisdiction ... so we’ll make sure that there is follow through.”
Along with fines, the government is expected to rollback the current limit on social gatherings which allows 50 people to gather indoors and 100 outdoors.
Ontario’s co-ordinator of the provincial outbreak response, Dr. Dirk Huyer, acknowledged there has been confusion about the rules. Even in these gatherings, public health guidelines like maintaining physical distancing and masking when that is not possible must be maintained, he said.
“When you’re having other people over you’re also sharing their social groups,” he said.
Ontario reported 315 new cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday, and two new deaths from the virus. In recent weeks, the province has seen an increase in case levels not seen since early June.
Access to testing has also emerged as a pressing issue as people wait in long line-ups and with some turned away at centres across Ontario.
Ford said Wednesday he is aware of the problems and the push to expand access to pharmacies will help as Ontario sets a new goal of conducting 50,000 daily tests — double the average of 25,000 currently conducted each day.
“We’re ramping up,” he said. “We’re going to have more testing areas than anywhere in the country bar none, not a couple hundred, a couple thousand additional testing areas to make it convenient for people.”
Health Minister Christine Elliott said the province hopes to double its testing capacity over the next month and is also working to prevent any slow down in processing by enlisting more labs to do that work.
“You have to have the testing and the labs working in tandem because it’s not worth much if you can have a test done in a short period of time, but it takes you four days or a week for the results to come back,” she said.
Government isn’t being proactive: Horwath
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said the government has not done enough to plan its entire COVID-19 response which has led to the long lines at testing centres.
“The government is chasing this instead of having been proactive and ready for it,” she said.
Green party Leader Mike Schreiner said Ford’s claims about ramping up testing on Wednesday sound very similar to his rhetoric earlier in the pandemic when the province lagged behind on the issue.
“It doesn’t take a public health expert to predict that the demand for tests would go up when people go back to school and offices,” he said in a statement. “Every day matters to stay ahead of the virus. The second wave is at our door, and the premier is playing catch-up once again.”
Earlier in the afternoon, the province and the federal government said they will be working together in the coming months to achieve a surge testing capacity of 78,000 COVID-19 tests per day.
Ford makes the commitment in a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau outlining how Ontario plans to use its $7-billion portion of the $19-billion Safe Restart Agreement reached over the summer.
The premier said the surge testing will fulfil Ontario’s per capita share of the federal national testing commitment.
In Ottawa on Wednesday, where testing centre waits have been long, Mayor Jim Watson said he shares residents’ frustrations.
He announced that one site run by Ottawa Hospital in would add four hours of operation, running from 7:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Watson said the city is also developing an online booking system so people can arrive for appointments rather than wait in line, and he said officials plan to select another testing site in the city’s east end in the coming days.
The mayor said he recommended to Ford that private gatherings should be limited to 10 people inside and 20 outside.
Watson also said the city plans to step up enforcement in public spaces and people who skirt public health guidelines.
“Days and hours of warnings and education have come to an end and now we’re going to start ticketing,” he said.
With files from Holly McKenzie-Sutter.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 16, 2020.