Experts examine how COVID-19 testing fits into Canada’s present and future

While Omicron has hurt access to PCR testing, we could still see expanded capacity, one expert says

Priscilla Ki Sun Hwang · CBC News · Posted: Jan 17, 2022 4:00 AM ET

Since the earliest days of the pandemic, COVID-19 testing has never been less accessible for the general public — and one expert says the testing tides have changed for the foreseeable future.

“This is the beginning of the end of testing as we know it, or as we’ve seen it before,” said Brenda Wilson, a public health physician and dean of community health at Memorial University of Newfoundland.

Wilson, who was a member of the federal government’s former COVID-19 Testing and Screening Expert Advisory Panel, noted jurisdictions across North America are changing rules on widespread testing for COVID-19.

In Ontario, publicly funded PCR testing has been strained since before the holidays, and the government has since announced only priority groups will get tested.

“We have shifted pretty much to a much more selective testing,” said Wilson. “With Omicron being so incredibly transmissible, and having spread to so many people, there’s really no way that any of the health system can keep up with … the way we’ve done it so far.”

Though it depends on whether new variants emerge and how the disease spreads, Wilson believes there will be a gradual shift to testing fewer people — much like how public health units don’t regularly test people for influenza.

This is the beginning of the end of testing as we know it, or as we’ve seen it before.- Brenda Wilson, Memorial University of Newfoundland

She says main indicators for COVID shifted from “who does and doesn’t have [COVID]” to its impact on the health-care system.

“As this pandemic comes to an end, as we move into living with COVID and whatever endemic COVID is, I think we will see less and less testing,” she said.

With less focus on PCR testing, health units and labs are able to redirect personnel and resources to other needs, she added. 

Though not as accurate, Wilson said individuals will rely more on rapid tests when seeking information on their health. Meanwhile, policy makers who need surveillance of community spread will turn more toward other methods such as wastewater testing.

Testing not going anywhere, says expert

Kwame McKenzie, the CEO of the non-profit policy think tank Wellesley Institute, says though restricted, Canada is actually conducting more total tests for COVID-19 than ever before in the pandemic.

“People think fewer tests are being done. In fact, more tests are being done. The volume of tests that we’re actually doing at the moment across Canada is much greater than it ever was,” he said.

The volume of tests that we’re actually doing at the moment across Canada is much greater than it ever was.- Kwame McKenzie, Wellesley Institute

McKenzie, who was also part of the federal government’s former expert advisory committee on testing, said many factors can change in the near future regarding the PCR testing threshold, and society will still rely on COVID tests over the next few months.

“I would be very surprised if this is the beginning of the end of testing,” said McKenzie, noting Omicron has likely infected only a small portion of the population so far.

With schools reopening and people eventually returning to work in person, he believes there will be another significant expansion of COVID-19 testing in the community, including both PCR and rapid tests

“While we’ve reached the capacity of our testing … we will still be testing for the foreseeable future,” he said.

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