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Ford urges province's regional medical officers to increase COVID testing

TORONTO — Premier Doug Ford issued a sharp rebuke to some of Ontario's regional medical officers of health Tuesday, blaming them for the province's inconsistent rate of COVID-19 testing and urging them to do more to increase it.
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TORONTO — Premier Doug Ford issued a sharp rebuke to some of Ontario's regional medical officers of health Tuesday, blaming them for the province's inconsistent rate of COVID-19 testing and urging them to do more to increase it.

At his daily briefing, Ford expressed frustration with some of the top doctors who he said are not ordering enough testing in their regions.

Ford promised change, but declined to name which regions — and which medical officers — he believed weren't performing enough tests.

"They know who they are," he said. "Start picking up your socks and start doing testing. I don't know what the big problem is with them testing. It's frustrating as anything."

The province reported Tuesday that 10,654 tests were completed in the previous 24 hours, the lowest total in five days and well below the government's target of 16,000.

The tally came a day after the premier said his province is now conducting the most tests per day in Canada, both in terms of volume and per capita.

Experts say ramping up testing will be key to containing the virus and lifting strict public health measures put in place to slow its spread.

Ontario had been testing well below its capacity, and earlier this month Ford called for that to change.

The premier said Tuesday that after the pandemic is over, his government may reconsider the current public health system, which employs 34 separate medical officers of health in different regions.

"Some just aren't performing," he said. "I'm calling them out right now. You've got to pick up the pace.... It's a lot easier to have one person in control than 34 people in control."

The Progressive Conservative government announced in the 2019 budget that it planned to begin a sweeping merger of public health units by 2020-2021, saying at the time it would strengthen the system.

The government said it had conducted a review of the province’s public health units and believed their structure did not allow for consistent service delivery.

Health Minister Christine Elliott appointed a special adviser last fall to conduct consultations with municipalities that had warned the amalgamation — coupled with changes to public health cost-sharing with the province — could jeopardize services and result in front-line staff layoffs.

In January, the government said it still intended to move forward with its plan to amalgamate certain units.

Ontario's chief medical officer of health said Tuesday that review is on hold because of the pandemic.

Dr. David Williams added that the province is trying to work with health units to increase their testing levels.

Some don't have adequate supplies and others need help with the logistics of moving test samples to the province's laboratories, Williams said.

"If they're not pulling up their socks in that sense, we will talk to them and ask them to do just that," he said. "We are looking at each one independently ... to make sure if they're not going full-force that they will be."

But the province's associate chief medical officer of health said the majority of tests being done in the province are from Ontario's COVID-19 testing centres.

Public health units are only responsible for testing in long-term care centres and child-care centres, Dr. Barbara Yaffe said.

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said she was shocked by Ford's comments and the blame for the testing inconsistencies lies with his government.

Ford "determines how many public health units and labs we have, and how much funding they get, and he's the one that spent the last year battling these organizations to make cuts to them," she said. "The buck stops with Mr. Ford."

The chairman of Toronto's board of health called Ford's comments "inaccurate."

"Testing is the responsibility of the province," Toronto city councillor Joe Cressy wrote on Twitter. "Public Health Ontario was established in part for just this purpose. We are all in this together, and public health units will always step up help to save lives, but to blame them for (provincial) failures is wrong."

Ontario reported 387 new cases of COVID-19 and 61 more deaths on Tuesday, as the growth rate in new cases remained steady.

The provincial total is now 18,310, including 1,361 deaths and 12,779 resolved cases — nearly 70 per cent of the total.

The new case tally is 2.2 per cent higher than the previous day, about the same growth rate as the previous day's 2.1 per cent.

In long-term care, where information comes from a different database than the provincial totals, no new outbreaks were reported Tuesday for a total of 175, while 31 more deaths were recorded for a total of 1,003.

The number of people in intensive care units and on ventilators with the virus dropped from the previous day.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 5, 2020.

Shawn Jeffords, The Canadian Press