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Ontario shifts test focus to most vulnerable groups

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TORONTO — Ontario will quadruple its COVID-19 testing capacity over the next month while shifting focus to those most vulnerable, officials announced Friday as a group home for disabled adults reported an outbreak led all but four caregivers to walk off the job.

Public health officials announced Friday that they plan to double testing capacity to 8,000 per day by April 15, and again to 16,000 people per day by May 6, when three-quarters of the people tested will be members of at-risk groups such as those in long-term care homes, health-care workers and people in other group living settings.

“By zeroing in on and dramatically expanding testing for these priority groups, we can stay one step ahead of the spread of this terrible virus. Our renewed and surgical focus on these groups is also in addition to the ongoing testing of the general public,” Health Minister Christine Elliott said.

The news came as the executive director of a group home for disabled adults who require full care in Markham, Ont., reported that news of an outbreak at the facility led to a massive walkout of personal support workers.

Shelley Brillinger said staff at the Butternut Lane site of Participation House had been dwindling for weeks as people stayed home to care for loved ones or protect themselves from the virus.

But she said that when she told employees yesterday that 10 residents and two staff members at the 42-resident home had tested positive for COVID-19, nearly everyone refused to keep working.

“There was a audible scream in the room, and some gasps, and people were just devastated,” Brillinger said.

Soon after, she said, she learned that all but four of the workers were walking away from their duties. Typically, she said, 35 people work at the facility in a 24-hour time-frame.

She said managers stepped in to do front-line work, and some hospital workers have also come to help, but ultimately, the facility needs more people.

“We can't hold this ship without reinforcements,” Brillinger said.

Brillinger said the workers had been using personal protective equipment since Monday, and all proper procedures were being followed, but the workers were too afraid to keep going in spite of the great need.

“Our residents are the most vulnerable in society,” she said, noting that their disabilities mean they need help walking, eating and doing other things many people take for granted.

“They don't have a voice, and my message would be it's our responsibility to speak up for those who can't speak for themselves and ensure that they have the care that they deserve,” Brillinger said.

The province's health minister said the government was taking action at the home.

“I'm making sure that people will be there to care for this incredibly vulnerable population," Elliott said. "But we'll also need to make sure that they can receive testing as well, because it is a congregate setting.”

Elliott and Premier Doug Ford made the testing announcement as the number of cases in Ontario surged to 6,237 - a jump of 478 - and the death toll reached 222. For the fourth day in a row, a backlog of tests awaiting results grew - this time by 390.

Ford said the information gleaned by the boost in testing will be key in the province's efforts to root it out.

“The first step to winning any battle is knowing your enemy," he said. "...We're going to find cases faster, intervene earlier, and stop this virus in its tracks.”

Provincial officials said that by May 6 only a quarter of the people they hope to be testing will have been referred to assessment centres, and the rest will go to symptomatic members of at-risk populations.

But they said that testing everyone - including the asymptomatic - is of little use, because those who are in the virus's two-week incubation period could receive false negatives and a misguided sense of security.

In addition to outbreaks at group homes like Participation House, the province has reported flare-ups at dozens of long-term care homes.

Residents and workers at long-term care homes experiencing outbreaks accounted for 931 cases of COVID-19 and 98 deaths, according to the province's daily epidemiologic summary.

Of those sickened in the 73 facilities where there have been outbreaks, 560 are residents and 366 are staff. In addition to the 98 residents who have died, a spouse of one of the residents also died of the virus.

The report says 17 hospitals are also experiencing outbreaks, in which 50 patients and 40 staff members have been sickened. Eight patients in those hospitals have died.

Government officials also announced measures for those not sickened by COVID-19 but affected by the pandemic nonetheless.

The education minister said the province is preventing child-care centres from collecting payments during closures mandated by COVID-19.

Stephen Lecce said nobody will lose their child-care space as a result of not paying.

A spokeswoman said the emergency order is effective for payments made starting on April 9, meaning those who paid at the beginning of the month won't get their money back.

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