Pharmacist Glen Sisak goes over a prescription with a customer at PharmaChoice pharmacy, in April 2020. VOICE

Ontario government rolls out its “fall preparedness plan”

Ontario Premier Doug Ford announced last week that COVID-19 testing would be available at 60 pharmacies in Ontario, primarily in Toronto and the surrounding area, plus the Ottawa region. He followed this up with a statement that as many as 18 more pharmacies in southwestern Ontario and Niagara region would also offer COVID-19 testing, with locations in St. Catharines, Niagara Falls, Kitchener-Waterloo, Cambridge, and London. This is in addition to the 150 assessment centres already in place throughout Ontario.

In a press release, Health Minister Christine Elliott said, “As part of our plan to ensure that we are ready for future waves of COVID-19, our government is working with pharmacies to help expand testing for Ontarians. With a recent increase in the number of cases, we are making sure people have more options for testing to identify cases of COVID-19 early. We must not let our guard down. Our best defense is still to follow all public health measures like practising physical distancing, wearing face masks and staying home when ill, so we can stop the spread of COVID-19.”

The government’s goal is 50,000 tests administered each day. Individuals will be able to visit select pharmacies by appointment only, and they will be pre-screened and tested at no charge. Outside Pelham, Shoppers Drug Mart, Rexall, and some independent pharmacies are participating in the testing.

To find the closest pharmacy or assessment centre, go to Ontario.ca/covidtest. Residents are encouraged to download the COVID Alert app from the Apple and Google Play app stores.

Jeff Leger, President of Shoppers Drug Mart, commented in a press release that, “We applaud the government for today’s announcement and for recognizing the role pharmacies and pharmacists can play as we all work together to address this global pandemic. Expanding testing to pharmacies in areas with a higher number of COVID cases will allow more access to these tests, and will help free up capacity at existing centres for those who are ill.”

A broad-scoped seasonal flu shot campaign is also part of the provincial government’s fall preparedness plan, which the Premier has referred to as the largest flu immunization campaign in Ontario’s history.

Kyle Boggio, pharmacist/owner of the Boggio Family of Pharmacies on Highway 20 West, said that last year his Fonthill location provided some 700 flu shots, and that this year “we are expecting that number to be significantly higher.”

Boggio said that the recent announcement is exciting for the recognition of pharmacists as essential healthcare providers, and for the expansion of their role in the healthcare system.

Boggio said that his pharmacy is currently undecided on whether to provide COVID testing.

“We are exploring all of our options, and even considering alternatives such as an outdoor testing centre located in an area of the parking lot, or even an offsite testing centre so that patients who are receiving testing will be completely separated from our regular patients.”

Nesrin Habashy, a pharmacist at Shoppers Drug Mart in the Fonthill Shopping Centre, said that at present the location is not one of the pharmacies in the chain which will provide testing, but that seasonal flu shots will be available.

Glen Sisak, owner/pharmacist at PharmaChoice, located in the Fonthill Marketplace, has no plans to participate in COVID-19 testing.

“Our efforts will be focused on administering flu shots in a safe environment. As a relatively new store, we’ve seen an increase in the number of flu shots each year and expect that to continue this season,” he said.

Bruce McAlpine, owner/pharmacist at PharmaSave in the Pelham Hills plaza, suggested that the government will likely start offering more saliva tests, which are less invasive than the nose swab tests. His pharmacy will providing seasonal flu shots on a walk-in and appointment basis, but will not be a COVID testing site, at least at this point.

Niagara Health announced last week that COVID-19 testing has been discontinued on a walk-in basis, and will now only be available by appointment. No referral from a doctor or the public health department is necessary. A massive increase in demand for testing has been observed in Niagara in recent weeks, which has caused delays in the ability of labs to process results. The surge in volume has been attributed to the easing of lockdown measures, people returning to work, and the opening of schools.

New restrictions in place dictate that those with no symptoms, or who did not have a risk of exposure to the coronavirus, or who are not part of an “at risk” group, will not be given a test.

As of Oct. 2, Niagara Public Health has confirmed 1,093 cases of the virus in the region, of which 105 are active, with five active outbreaks. The death toll due to COVID-19 in Niagara remains at 64.

There have been eight reported cases of COVID-19 at regional schools: one at Ferndale Public School, St. Catharines, one at Mary Ward Catholic Elementary in Niagara Falls, one at Canadian Martyrs Catholic Elementary in St. Catharines, three at Eastdale Secondary in Welland, one at Holy Cross Secondary in St. Catharines, and one at William Hamilton Merritt Elementary in St. Catharines. Niagara Health continues to monitor the situation closely.