Asymptomatic Ontarians will be able to get tested for COVID-19 at select pharmacies by the end of this week as part of a wider plan to boost capacity and cut down on the hours-long waits that have been reported at some assessment centres.

Premier Doug Ford says that there will be up to 60 pharmacies offering COVID-19 tests by appointment only as of Friday with more locations expected to be added “in the coming weeks.”

He said that the hope is that by rolling out COVID-19 testing in pharmacies the province will be able “to take the load off” its 150 assessment centres, where some people have reported waiting in line for upwards of four hours just to get a test.

“We need to make it easier to get a COVID test as it is with a flu shot,” Ford said in making the announcement. “It is easy to get a flu shot and we have to make sure a COVID test is just as easy.”

Ford has been teasing an announcement about COVID-19 testing in pharmacies for weeks now and previously told reporters that there will be “thousands” of locations where residents can get tested.

The 60 locations announced on Wednesday, located mostly in areas with higher levels of infection, are a far cry from that but Ford told reporters that the province is committed to adding more locations in the weeks to come.

He did not say how many tests could eventually be conducted by pharmacists but did say that he expects the number to be large enough to put “a big dent” in the overall demand for testing.

“I see it when I drive by (the assessment centres). Everyone is getting tested. I understand that. We are going to ramp this up and take the load off the public system that we have seen over the last 10 days or two weeks,” he promised.

Three Toronto hospitals to begin offering saliva testing

Wednesday’s announcement was the latest in a series of initiatives to be rolled out in relation to the Ford government’s fall preparedness plan.

In addition to COVID-19 testing in pharmacies, Ford also announced that three Toronto hospitals - Women's College, Mount Sinai and Toronto Western Hospital – will start offering less invasive saliva testing at their assessment centres this week with more to follow.

The premier, however, slammed Health Canada for not yet approving point-of-care saliva testing, which he said would allow for results “in minutes; not days.”

“It is affecting the whole system. Just imagine if we had these saliva tests like I have been on here for a couple months begging and pleading for. We wouldn’t be in this position right now. Because very simply we would have these stores up and running, we would have these additional sites and we would be able to test more people,” he said.

Ford said that “nothing is more important to the people of Ontario right now” than the approval of point-of-care saliva testing.

Health Minister Patty Hajdu, however, told reporters last week that there remains issues around the accuracy of the various rapid COVID-19 testing devices and that they will not be permitted until that has been resolved.

“I don’t know how many times I have to do cartwheels up here and scream out to Health Canada to start approving these tests. It is frustrating to say the least,” Ford said on Wednesday.

A spokesman for Health Canada said Wednesday night that the agency has received two applications for COVID-19 tests which use saliva samples and is working with the applicants.

“Products are assessed thoroughly before they are authorized, to ensure they are safe and effective,” Eric Morrissette said in a statement, adding that provincial labs can develop their own tests which provincial governments regulate

For a full list of participating pharmacies follow this link.

- with files from The Canadian Press