Epidemiological mathematics has become our national obsession. Anxious nations scan the curve of infection and death and measure their point of view, looking for signs of progress.
And progress has occurred. The economic toll is enormous and too many lives have been lost, but there are signs that the spread of infection has slowed substantially, from coast to coast. That is why the Canadian provinces began to sketch plans to gradually reopen the economic parts.
The time each small step goes to normal will depend on how far the virus is examined. And keeping the virus under control is impossible without an extensive testing program.
Testing, testing, testing has been a mantra since the beginning. Until there is a vaccine, it will be the main tool.
Extreme physical juxtaposition, and economic freezing that accompanies it, contain the first wave of viruses. Testing, and tracking the contact of all those who connect with those who test positive, offers the best hope for restarting most of the economy safely, while preventing a new wave of infection.
Unfortunately, testing capacity in Canada is still lacking as needed.
Last week, Canada’s Head of Public Health, Theresa Tam, quoted an initial target to test 60,000 people every day. On Monday, Canada tested only 26,000.
And that is the highest number to date, because Ontario has finally stepped up testing after being very behind. There is still a long way to go, and Dr. Tam can only be done as a first step. Even higher levels of testing will likely be needed.
According to a recent report from researchers at Harvard University, the beaten United States will need at least five million tests a day in early June to get the country on track for a safe reopening. By mid-summer, the report called for 20 million daily tests “to completely mobilize the economy.” (U.S. tested 220,000 a day in the past week.)
Five million daily tests in the US, when adjusted for Canada’s lower population, is equivalent to nearly 600,000 tests a day. That’s more than 20 times the current Canadian exchange rate.
The numbers are high because they consider it necessary to test anyone who has symptoms, and everyone who contacts them. Risk groups, such as in nursing homes, need regular tests. Health care workers and others in important jobs need repeated testing. Anyone who is infected needs to be isolated. There also seems to be a good reason to consider some random testing of asymptomatic off-site people.
The challenge with this virus is that the evidence strongly shows that it can be transmitted by people who have no symptoms.
In the Second World War, radar and sonar were the two most important Allied weapons. They can see enemies hidden under the sea or lurk on the horizon. In today’s war, testing is our early warning system. This reveals a virus that prefers to move clandestinely.
When it comes to improving testing, provinces have varied results. Ontario has been criticized, and with good reason, for backlog and lack of testing in the early weeks of the pandemic. It once aimed to reach 19,000 tests a day in mid-April; now targeting 16,000 in early May. Need to reach that number, and continue to grow.
British Columbia conducted the most aggressive tests when the pandemic began in mid-March, and the new infection curve was flatter than in other large provinces. Relatively few people died or were hospitalized, compared to Ontario and Quebec.
The level of SM testing is now lower than elsewhere, although a low percentage of positive tests indicate there is no invisible outbreak. In recent days, SM tested an average of 2,000 people. However, the province’s current daily capacity of 7,000 will almost meet Dr.’s initial testing target. Tam On Monday, BC Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry said the province can now test anyone who has symptoms, including mild symptoms that are similar to the common cold.
That should have been the minimum standard in Canada last week.
The point is that, nationally, the ability to test, and to quickly track contacts of positive cases, is still not as it should be.
Physical distance helps Canada avoid the worst case scenario. Mass testing will help win the next phase of the battle: reopen the economy, and keep it open.
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