Ontario's decision to limit the number of COVID-19 PCR (polymerase chain reaction) tests to only those most at risk of being infected could change the dynamics for Ontario workers who suspect they have been exposed but cannot get a test to confirm their status.
While the Rapid Antigen Test (RAT) has a quick turnaround time, it is not considered 100-per-cent accurate.
Dr. Kieran Moore, Ontario's chief medical officer of health, said Thursday that the rapidly spreading Omicron variant has resulted in a shortage of resources for PCR testing. Ontario's COVID-19 Science Table has described the RAT testing as useful and helpful in screening, but most employers have been requesting the PCR test for employees suspected of having COVID.
The new testing protocol has raised the question of how employers will react for workers who need testing to allow them to safely return to work, or for workers who cannot get a test to conclusively prove they have COVID and need to take time off work to isolate.
Moore told the news conference that employers will have to be understanding. While he does not have the legislative power to change employment law, Moore said employers will be advised to be forgiving.
"We're going to have to speak to employers that, given the limitations that we have for testing across Ontario, they shouldn't be expecting confirmatory testing. They should be trusting that if you've declared that you've had the respiratory symptoms of fever – a cough, runny nose, sinus congestion, headache, extreme exhaustion or fatigue, muscle aches, joint aches – all those symptoms that correlate with COVID-19, and correlate well with Omicron, you should stay home for those five days and the employer shouldn't request any additional practices," Moore said.
Moore added that the decision to slow down PCR testing in Ontario has nothing to do with trying to skew the COVID case numbers, but is merely a question of capacity.
"If we had the capacity, we would offer the testing. This is a finite capacity. I don't think anywhere in the world expected the transmissibility of Omicron and we have to use that finite capacity to best protect Ontarians," said Moore.
"I can assure you if we had the ability to test everyone – 14.7 million people whenever they got ill – we would have done so. But no country around the globe has that capacity. So this is not a cover up. This is a basic premise of a limited finite resource that we have to use judiciously to best protect Ontarians," Moore told the news conference.
Moore added that for residents who are indeed sick, there will be testing available at the usual community assessment centres.
"So for anyone with an underlying medical illness, immune compromised, severe underlying medical problems an assessment centre will test you. What we're doing over the coming days is modifying a significant proportion of the assessment centres, that if you clinically feel unwell, you'll also be assessed by a healthcare provider," said Moore.
"So your blood pressure, your vital signs, your oxygen will be tested," he added, saying the overall intention is to take the burden off emergency rooms and testing labs.
Len Gillis is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter at Sudbury.com. He covers health care in Northern Ontario.