MONTREAL - Quebec is preparing to administer up to 100,000 COVID-19 tests per week to better manage what authorities expect will be an increase in infections as the province begins gradually reopening schools, factories, construction sites and retail stores.
By the end of next week, Quebec will have the capacity to administer up to 14,000 tests per day, the province's director of public health said Friday. The new testing strategy more than doubles the province's current capacity, Dr. Horacio Arruda said.
"By administering about 100,000 tests a week, with all that entails — such as human resources challenges, data collection, laboratory work and epidemiological follow-up — it's unheard of," Arruda told reporters in Quebec City.
The province announced earlier this week that elementary schools and daycares will reopen outside Montreal on May 11 and within the greater Montreal area on May 19. Retail stores, along with the construction and manufacturing sectors, are scheduled to reopen across the province by May 11.
Opposition parties and some school boards in the province have criticized plans to reopen schools in Montreal. They say the hundreds of new daily cases of COVID-19 in the city, coupled with viral outbreaks in several hospitals, show the contagion in Montreal is not under control.
Both Arruda and Quebec Premier Francois Legault have stated they would delay their reopening strategy if they determine the province's health-care network will not be able to cope with what they expect will be a rise in infections when schools and businesses reopen.
But Arruda said Friday the increased testing capacity will allow authorities to rapidly swoop into areas that see sudden outbreaks of the disease.
"We want to discover the positive cases, we want to investigate even more up the chain of transmission, and isolate people who are susceptible to transmit the virus," Arruda said.
Arruda estimates about three per cent of Quebec's population has been infected with COVID-19, representing about 250,000 people — nearly nine times the current number of confirmed cases in the province.
His estimates correspond with the results of a statistical study released Friday by researchers at Universite de Montreal.
The study, which has not been peer-reviewed, created a statistical model for the U.S. that researchers say could also be used in Canada.
Economic sciences professor Raphael Godefroy said the model puts the true number of infections in Quebec at 256,130. Godefroy was happy to learn Arruda's team reached roughly the same figure.
"If you have different methods that converge it's more likely that you are right," Godefroy said in an interview Friday.
In the beginning of the pandemic, Godefroy explained, governments were only testing people who were severely sick or who presented symptoms of the virus, providing researchers with a data sample that was not random.
But as authorities increased daily testing, more people who showed mild symptoms or no symptoms at all began to be tested. Godefroy said statistically speaking, the last person to be tested each day is less likely to be sick, as the overall rate of testing increases.
"People who are more likely to be sick are tested first," he explained. "But as the number of tests increase, the probability that the last person tested is sick decreases."
Using existing data, Godefroy was able to mathematically infer how many people would test positive if the government increased testing further.
"If you push the model to the limit you can infer what would happen if everyone (in Quebec) is tested," he said.
The results indicated that the mortality rate of the virus is far lower than what can be calculated from official numbers, he said. But the study also reveals that people need to maintain physical distancing to prevent the spread of the virus because COVID-19 still widely circulating.
The province will maintain the capacity to administer roughly 7,000 tests per day for workers and patients in the health-care sector, Arruda said. About 6,000 tests will be reserved for asymptomatic people "in the community," and the province is reserving another 1,000 daily tests for sudden outbreaks of the virus, he said.
It was not entirely clear where the government will find more people to administer tests, collect data, and trace the contacts of infected people.
Arruda said he was in contact with universities and private companies, which he said will help the province administer 100,000 tests per week.
Quebec reported 163 deaths related to COVID-19 on Friday, for a total of 2,022. The province also reported an increase of four people in intensive care, for a total of 218 patients.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 1, 2020.