TORONTO — Ontario’s government defended its plan Wednesday to allow people with COVID-19 symptoms to get tested for the virus in pharmacies, even as opposition legislators and public health experts expressed safety concerns.
Health Minister Christine Elliott told the legislature that pharmacies will take standard infection prevention and control measures — including mask-wearing, physical distancing and having a dedicated space to perform the tests.
“(Chief Medical Officer of Health) Dr. Kieran Moore, and the people of Public Health Ontario, they’re epidemiologists. They know what’s safe, and they have indicated that this is going to be safe,” she said. “There are going to be strict measures.”
She also said there will be a list of participating pharmacies and signage posted outside so people know that people with COVID-19 symptoms may be present before entering the facility.
The Opposition New Democrats asked whether the testing rules are being changed after lobbying efforts, but Elliott said they based the decision on the advice of top health officials.
Ontario pharmacies are currently only able to perform COVID-19 tests for people who don’t have symptoms, haven’t been in contact with an infected person and aren’t connected to an outbreak.
Dr. Anna Banerji, a professor at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health, said she wouldn’t want to go into a pharmacy where people with COVID-19 symptoms are getting tested.
“I have some concerns,” she said. “You’re mixing people who are sick with people who are going into the pharmacy for general kinds of things, who may be elderly or may need medications, may be immunocompromised.”
Banerji said she has questions about how well ventilated pharmacies are and whether distancing will even be possible while people wait for their tests.
“Unless the pharmacies can ensure that there’s a separation between the sick people and the average consumer that’s going into Shopper’s Drug Mart or whichever pharmacy, I think this could be a place for transmission,” she said.
Tim Brady, chair of the Ontario Pharmacists Association’s board of directors, said there are several ways pharmacies can make customers feel safe as symptomatic testing ramps up.
Brady owns three independent pharmacies in southwestern Ontario, and he said he only plans to offer tests at one of them so people with safety concerns can avoid locations where symptomatic people will be.
He said the OPA would also like to see the province allow pharmacists to go out to clients’ cars to perform the tests.
“That way we’d still do the test, and you could really separate out the people,” he said.
Brady said hundreds more pharmacies have applied to offer COVID-19 tests for symptomatic clients, compared to the 200 that currently offer tests.
“So there’s some interest and obviously, there’s people that have been asked by their community members to do it, and they’re going to step up and help out,” he said. “But there are people that are concerned and rightfully so.”
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