Slow turnaround for COVID-19 tests in Ottawa contributed to spread, AG report suggests
A nurse demonstrates testing at a drive-thru Covid-19 testing centre at the National Arts Centre Wednesday, Nov. 18, 2020 in Ottawa. The testing centre replaces an outdoor facility in the city in preparation for winter. (Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
OTTAWA -- A new report from Ontario's Auditor General suggests delays in COVID-19 testing and contact tracing in the province's largest cities, including Ottawa, held back the response to the pandemic and may have contributed to further spread of the virus.
Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk released a report on COVID-19 preparedness and management in Ontario on Wednesday. In it, she outlines failures of several major public health units to meet certain targets for completing COVID-19 tests and contact tracing.
"Overall, we found that laboratory testing, case management and contact tracing for COVID 19 were not all being performed in a timely enough manner to contain the spread of the virus. In most cases, the Ministry’s targets for these activities were not met," the report states.
While the report does say that Ottawa alone was able to achieve a target of laboratory tests being completed within 24 hours of a specimen being collected 60% of the time as of August, the local health unit did not fare as well in other metrics.
"For case management, the Ministry has a target of public health units contacting 90% of individuals who have tested positive within 24 hours of the public health unit receiving the test result," the report states. "As of August 2020, in the province as a whole, an average of only about 80% of individuals who tested positive had been contacted that quickly. The province’s failure to meet the target was due mainly to the public health regions of Toronto, Ottawa, Peel Region and York Region taking more than a day to contact the infected individuals."
The report shows that, between March and August, it took Ottawa an average of 3.25 days to begin case management. A day and half was the average time it took to report a positive test result and it took another 1.75 days on average to begin case management.
The average time in other regions was 2.75 days. Toronto's average time was 5.75 days.
However, Ottawa became the slowest region in the province at the start of the second wave.
"Ottawa’s average time to complete these activities between September and October 2020 was 4.5 days, York Region’s was 2.25 days, Peel Region’s was 3.25 days and Toronto’s was four days," the report states.
While noting that the government has taken several steps to improve COVID-19 testing in the province the AG slammed the government for not taking action on past recommendations until the pandemic hit.
"The need for more testing capacity and better information systems had been pointed out years ago by experts and others (including our Office), with little to no action taken until the onset of the COVID 19 pandemic," the report says. "If these long-standing concerns had been addressed earlier, the Ministry would have better information to enable it to adjust testing eligibility criteria to the highest-risk Ontarians and probable cases, and Ontario could have responded to COVID 19 more quickly, more effectively and more efficiently."
Michelle Hoad, CEO of the Medical Laboratory Professionals' Association of Ontario said her organization had been calling for improvements to testing capacity throughout the pandemic.
"Throughout this pandemic, we have been sounding the alarm about how human health resources, insufficient instrumentation, equipment failure, paper-based laboratory information systems, and supply chain concerns are resulting in delayed turnaround times, not the inaction of overworked medical laboratory teams," a statement said. "It is validating to hear these concerns confirmed in the special report from the Office of the Auditor General of Ontario."
Government calls report a 'mischaracterization' of response
Speaking to reporters Wednesday morning, Health Minister Christine Elliott called the auditor general’s report disappointing and said there was a "mischaracterization of the province’s pandemic response."
"While we welcome certain other recommendations from the auditor general, many in areas where we were continuing to make improvements, we have different views on various aspects of her report. No jurisdiction is perfect," Elliott said.
Lysyk later told reporters that all items in her report were "vetted for factual accuracy" and signed off by various departments. She said that the pushback by the government was "unexpected" and reiterated that her report isn't a criticism, rather it is meant to help guide future decision-making.
"The intent is to make sure that the issues that have been highlighted get finally get addressed," she said.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford blasted the AG's report while speaking to reporters at Queen's Park on Wednesday, particularly the comments about Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. David Williams.
"Ultimately, I have some serious, serious problems with this report," he said.
"To say that Dr. Williams wasn't leading this response, it just isn't right. It's actually wrong. This does nothing but undermine our entire health team. And I can't stand for this. And I'll tell you, I won't stand for this."
Ford said he, the minister of health, and the minister of long-term care have, between them, put in more than 2,700 hours of work throughout the pandemic and he noted that Ontario has the lowest rate of COVID-19 per capita in Canada outside of the Atlantic Provinces.
"The Auditor General's job is not to be the chief medical officer, not to be the Ombudsman, not to sit there and give us health advice. I've always said, there's a big problem with an accountant that starts giving me health advice or, vice versa, the doctor trying to give me economic advice. It doesn't work out well," the premier said.
"If there's financial issues, I'm here. I'll sit there and I'll answer the questions, day in, day out, but to sit in the office and throw hand grenades at Dr. Williams and his team and the Minister of Health is totally unacceptable. Stick with looking for value for money; stick with the job that we hired you for."
With files from CTV's Queen's Park Bureau Chief Colin D'Mello.