Social distancing is crucial, but Canada also needs more coronavirus testing: experts

Canadians are being urged to stay home to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus, but experts say social distancing isn’t enough to combat the disease – we need to be doing more testing, too.

“Testing is essential,” said Craig Janes, director of the School of Public Health and Health Systems at the University of Waterloo.

“Without testing, you don’t know what’s going on in your community and you also can’t respond out there to isolate clusters, and self-isolating, quarantining households, that sort of thing.”

READ MORE: Live updates – Coronavirus in Canada

The World Health Organization agrees.

“You can’t win a football game by defending, you have to attack as well,” said WHO director-general Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus at a press conference Monday.

“Asking people to stay at home and other physical distancing measures are an important way of slowing down the virus and buying us time. But they are defensive measures that will not help us to win.”

2:24Coronavirus outbreak: WHO warns COVID-19 pandemic ‘is accelerating’

Coronavirus outbreak: WHO warns COVID-19 pandemic ‘is accelerating’

Countries must also test, isolate and treat cases of the disease, he said, as well as trace other people the person was in contact with and get them checked or isolated, too.

Getting tested in Canada can be slow. Although more than 30,000 people have been tested in Ontario, 10,000 people are still awaiting test results, officials announced Tuesday.

READ MORE: B.C. reports 3 new coronavirus deaths, 100 people now recovered

According to Dr. Vera Etches, Ottawa’s chief medical officer, it can currently take up to seven days to get test results in Ottawa.

B.C. is currently testing more than 3,000 people per day, and is focusing on testing health care workers, hospital patients, long-term care home residents and outbreak clusters.

Canada’s chief public health officer said Monday that testing centres have to “be smart” about who they test, due to supply issues.

READ MORE: Coronavirus testing centres need ‘to be smart’ due to supply limitations, Tam says

“Right now, we don’t have enough tests to do many tests and rapid tests. I think it really needs to ramp up,” said Dr. Anna Banerji, an associate professor at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto.

People without symptoms shouldn’t be getting tested right now, she said, because they might “clog up the system.”

5:35How long does social distancing take to work?

How long does social distancing take to work?

But while testing is important, experts say that doesn’t mean that social distancing measures are a waste of time.

“I think it’s probably essential,” Janes said.

“The more we can restrict people moving about, the more we can slow transmission, the more we can permit our health systems to get a handle on what’s going on, the more lives we can save.”

READ MORE: ‘Like a tsunami.’ B.C. health workers speak out as coronavirus concerns rise

It also gives our health systems time to ramp up testing, Banerji said. “We’re just buying time to get other things in place,” like respirators, intensive care units, and more, she said.

She’s not sure how long we can keep social distancing measures up, though.

“I don’t know what people are going to be like in a couple more weeks. Is it sustainable?”

READ MORE: Ontario reports 85 new coronavirus cases including one death, total active cases at 573

Janes doesn’t think social distancing will necessarily last for too long. “If we’re able to get a handle on this epidemic, if we’re able to turn this curve down, the next couple of weeks will be the proof of whether social distancing works or not,” he said.

“Then we’re in a situation where we might be able, if we have enough testing, we can get out there in the community quickly enough to identify those positive cases, to get people into self-isolation, quarantining households and doing that kind of thing.”

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