As Canada eases coronavirus restrictions, testing must increase: experts

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Across the country, provinces have begun to slowly lift measures put in place to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus.

On Monday, some schools in Quebec opened their doors, while businesses in Ontario were permitted to open for curbside pickup.

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But, as restrictions are lifted, experts say Canada will need to ramp up testing.

What will that look like, and will businesses play a role in screening for the virus? Here’s a look at what’s going on.

Ramping up testing

According to the Public Health Agency of Canada, by 11 a.m. on Monday, more than 1,119,000 people in Canada had been tested for the novel coronavirus.

Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious disease specialist based out of Toronto General Hospital, said as public health restrictions are lifted, Canada will need to ramp up diagnostic testing.

He said Canada needs to have the “lowest possible threshold” for testing.

“That means if people have any possible signs or symptoms of COVID-19, they should have access to testing and not be turned away from diagnostic testing centres, as we have heard,” he said.

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Dr. Timothy Sly, an epidemiologist and professor emeritus at Ryerson University’s School of Public Health, said this novel coronavirus is “stealth” because an infected person can be completely asymptomatic.

The person standing next to you in the supermarket line looking very cheerful and healthy might actually be shedding the virus everywhere. We just don’t know,” he said. “So that’s why testing becomes important.”

He said that without testing, “you’re really groping around in the dark.”

But Bogoch said the increased testing needs to be coupled with increased community surveillance and contact tracing.

It’s extremely important that anyone who has a positive diagnostic test, that they get informed of the diagnostic test in a very timely manner and that there is appropriate contact tracing done to identify any other possible person who’s been exposed to that person,” he explained.

Temperature checks

As businesses begin to reopen their doors, some have indicated they may implement mandatory temperature checks for their employees in an effort to detect the virus.

But the practice does not have a very good history of being effective, Dr. Steven Hoffman, scientific director of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research’s Institute of Population and Public Health, said.

“For example, during SARS, at the Canadian border, we tested millions of people for their temperatures, and not a single case of SARS was found in that process,” he explained. “So, I mean, mass temperature checks are more about showing people that something’s being done rather than it being a particularly effective measure.”

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Bogoch agreed that temperature checks can miss “a lot” of infections and can also result in false positives.

“There’s about a million reasons to have an elevated temperature apart from COVID-19,” he explained.

Bogoch said overall, temperature checks tend to provide a “false sense of security” for employees but added that if companies want to do them, he has “no problems with that.”

I just think as a general policy, across the board, it’s probably not going to be the most helpful,” he said.

But Sly said that while temperature checks are not always reliable, they are “not a bad idea” if layered on top of other screening and virus detection measures.

I mean, why would you say: ‘Well, if about half of virus-positive people who come through are not detected so we won’t even use it at all’? At least you could have maybe captured half of the virus-positive people,he said.

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Diagnostic testing

Currently, in Canada, nasopharyngeal swabs are being used to test for the novel coronavirus. The results of those tests are usually made available within a few days.

Hoffman said that while it would be great if on-the-spot, rapid diagnostic tests were available, Canada is “not there yet.”

“Once the technology is developed, it then needs to be manufactured, and then early supplies are going to be prioritized for likely remote communities that don’t have laboratory capacity,” he explained.

He said it could be a long time — if ever — before rapid tests are made available to businesses to test their employees.

According to Hoffman, by the time the technology is developed, it is likely the pandemic will have ended.

You have to make sure that you have high-quality tests, and currently the best-quality tests are in large, established laboratories,” Bogoch added. “So doing the on-site testing, at a business currently, it’s probably not the best idea, I don’t see that changing in the near future.”

What other measures can be implemented in the workplace?

While each business will have to assess its own risks when deciding how and when to reopen, Bogoch said there are a number of “general strategies” that can be implemented to limit the spread of COVID-19.

He said this includes enforcing social distancing, providing access to hand sanitation stations and avoiding settings where people gather together.

Bogoch said at some workplaces where physical distancing is not possible, or where the risk of transmission is higher, masks could be worn.

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He said that while there is always a risk, if these measures are in place, it “should be reasonable” to reopen.

On top of enforcing physical-distancing measures, Hoffman said the No. 1 thing employers can do is “continually message” to their employees that they should stay home if they are feeling unwell and pay them to do so.

“A lot of people can’t miss work if they’re not going to get paid,” he said. 

© 2020 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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