As federal health officials called surging COVID-19 test positivity rates in Toronto “very alarming” and cause for new public health measures, Ontario officials admitted they only saw the numbers Tuesday, after the Star obtained the provincial data and published it.
The province announced no new interventions Tuesday, however, pointing to existing efforts like mobile testing and advertising to increase awareness.
In four pockets of the city, the percentage of tests coming back positive is above 10 per cent, according to data obtained by the Star but not publicly released. In several other areas the rate is above seven per cent, and in two-thirds of the city it is above three per cent, a critical threshold set by public health authorities.
“It is an indication that more public health measures are needed and that there is uncontained community spread. It’s very alarming,” Patty Hajdu, federal health minister, said at a Tuesday news briefing when asked about the 10 per cent figure.
“Because of course, the report is around specific neighbourhoods in Toronto, but we know that people don’t just stay in their neighbourhood. People move about and of course bring the virus with them.”
Dr. Howard Njoo, deputy chief public health officer of Canada, said that rates above five per cent are concerning, and the 10 per cent figure is “very worrisome, because that indicates there’s probably a high degree of community transmission and lots of unlinked cases. And so that means that public health authorities need to take whatever steps are necessary if they can identify high-risk events at certain settings that maybe need more intensive contact tracing, those things are certainly things to be looked at.
“So I think that 10 per cent is sort of, I would say, quite a serious level.”
At a Tuesday news briefing at Queen’s Park, officials agreed the data was concerning but highlighted steps already being taken, and announced no new public health measures.
Premier Doug Ford acknowledged seeing the data earlier in the day, and that he represents some of the harder-hit areas.
Three of the four areas with test positivity rates above 10 per cent are in Toronto’s northwest corner, which overlaps with the premier’s Etobicoke North riding. This part of the city was also disproportionately hit by the first wave of the pandemic. Neighbourhoods in Toronto’s northwest corner have some of the highest proportions of low-income and racialized residents.
“Well, I did see the data,” Ford said Tuesday afternoon. “Probably about a couple hours ago, they showed me the data. And you’re 100 per cent correct. It’s in certain areas, one being in my area. And that’s where we have to focus on.
“We go out there, we put the mobile testing units up. We get more advertising within those communities. And if it’s … no matter if it’s the mainstream media or if it’s the ethnic media, we’re still pumping millions and millions of dollars to educate the people.”
Ontario’s associate medical officer of health, Dr. Barbara Yaffe, said she had not seen the data, but had read about it in the Star, which published it Monday night.
“I haven’t actually seen the data myself. I’ve read the article in the paper. That is very concerning. Those rates are high and those are neighbourhoods and areas that we already knew were at increased risk based on other data.”
In addition to mobile testing and advertising, Yaffe suggested that public health should prioritize contact tracing in these areas.
Experts said that more should have been done to support and gird these areas for the second wave, given that, as Yaffe acknowledges, the province knew they were at risk.
Dr. Andrew Boozary, a family physician in Toronto and executive director of Population Health and Social Medicine at University Health Network, said in a tweet: “I’m really concerned about us being able to take a data-driven (and) health equity approach when the first time policymakers see the data” is in the Star.
This content was originally published here.