Ontario to allow symptomatic COVID-19 testing inside pharmacies, sources say

TORONTO — Ontario’s Ministry of Health is allowing pharmacies to conduct COVID-19 tests on symptomatic patients for the first time and tests could get underway as soon as this week.

A senior government official told CP24 the program is voluntary and open to any willing pharmacy in the province.

It will involve on-site PCR COVID-19 swab tests as well as a drop-off program for specimens collected at home, similar to the system being implemented at public schools across the province.

An internal document sent to Shoppers Drug Mart pharmacy employees and obtained by CP24 this week says they will be able to accept symptomatic high-risk close contacts of those already diagnosed with COVID-19 and those with symptoms, by appointment only.

“We know there is some anxiousness about this news and want to assure you that the safety of Pharmacy Teams, Patients and customers remains of utmost importance,” a memo sent to Shoppers pharmacists states. “With this in mind, we are working through the support and infrastructure required to enable the safe delivery of symptomatic testing in stores, including access to PPE, space requirements, and the (standard operating procedures) required to deliver this service safely and effectively.”

Staff at pharmacies have been told that up to 138 Shoppers locations already approved to conduct asymptomatic COVID-19 testing could begin offering first appointments for symptomatic individuals as early as Wednesday.

A pharmacist who was not authorized to speak to the media told CP24 they were concerned that bringing symptomatic individuals into a pharmacy setting, which frequently welcomes the elderly and immunocompromised to pick up prescriptions and children too young to wear face masks, presented an unacceptable risk.

They also expressed concern about proper ventilation and air filtration throughout each pharmacy where symptomatic testing will take place.

The document from Loblaws, which owns Shoppers Drug Mart, was authored by a senior director in the company’s health and wellness department. It says pharmacies will be able to accept symptomatic patients by appointment only and they will be required to wear a mask for the entire time they are within the pharmacy and staff completing specimen collection will be wearing gowns, gloves, surgical masks and eye protection, with a requirement to don protective items and dispose of them after each interaction with a symptomatic person.

Each participating Shoppers pharmacy will be sent one high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter to run in the enclosed area where symptomatic specimen collection will take place.

The document says pharmacies with space issues will be able to administer vaccines and conduct other duties in the same room as they swab symptomatic patients for COVID-19, provided “required sanitation protocols are followed in between services.”

Staff will not be allowed to swab symptomatic patients outdoors as an added safety measure.

Testing of asymptomatic individuals will be allowed in the same room as symptomatic individuals, provided “the required sanitation protocol is followed.”

If the participating pharmacy cannot spare an enclosed room to conduct specimen collection, they can use “privacy screens to increase overall capacity for services, as long as patient privacy can be maintained.”

The Ministry of Health said it expects specimen collection to occur in a dedicated space, with attention paid to time separation of appointments and ventilation throughout the participating location.

In response to possible customer backlash over the new testing effort, the company says it is “working closely with our communications team to help support messaging for this program and the important role that pharmacies are playing in providing access to testing for Patients, along with the safety precautions that will be in place to protect Associates, their employees, and Patients.”

The Ministry of Health said it expects pharmacies conducting symptomatic testing to have ample signage warning all customers that it is taking place.

Other Canadian provinces allow asymptomatic testing at pharmacies, but Ontario appears to be the first jurisdiction in Canada to allow people with symptoms, which often include cough and can sometimes include nausea or vomiting to attend pharmacies for tests.

When asked about the new testing effort, including what is planned to warn other customers about symptomatic tests occurring and whether staff could don respirator masks during specimen collection, Loblaws referred all questions to Ontario’s Ministry of Health.

The Ministry of Health official said the province will soon set up a webpage listing pharmacies participating in the program.

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