Ontario’s online COVID-19 tool has told 100,000 to seek medical help ASAP

Ontario’s online COVID-19 tool has told 100,000 to seek medical help ASAP
More than 100,000 Ontario residents have been “directed to seek immediate medical assistance” due to COVID-19 symptoms in the past week, data from the province’s online assessment tool reveals.

Another half-million visitors to the online site had symptoms serious enough to be instructed to self isolate — another indication of how serious the situation in Ontario is.

Around the world, governments have created online tools that ask people a series of questions to help them determine if they have symptoms of the rapidly spreading virus. Ontario official went online with its assessment tool, accessible through the provincial health ministry website , on March 23, after a soft launch three days earlier.

(A word about the numbers in this story. The provincial site does not account for people who visit the site more than once. This story will refer to “visits” or “visitors” to the site. It is possible that some people have visited the site and used the tool more than once.)

When the online tool was launched, people were encouraged by the health ministry to “take this self-assessment if you think you have coronavirus (COVID-19) or have been in close contact with someone who has it.”

Through Friday, March 27, 920,271 visitors to the site had taken the assessment, a series of questions that begin with the most serious symptoms. “Are you experiencing ... severe difficulty breathing, severe chest pain, confusion, lost consciousness.”

The online tool also asks if the visitor has fever, a “new cough” or shortness of breath. Other questions ask if the visitor to the site has muscle aches, fatigue, sore throat, runny nose, or a headache.

According to provincial data released to the Star, here is the result of the past week of online traffic to the self-assessment tool. The ministry was only able to provide a breakdown for 920,271 visits to the site as of 11:59 p.m. on Friday, March 27. Additional visits to the site put the total number of visitors over a million by Saturday afternoon.

Of those 920,271 visitors:

Ministry officials are struggling to understand the final category — 256,799 visitors reporting no symptoms — and there are several explanations. Some people who are healthy might use the tool because they are simply curious, but it is likely that the larger number are people who are returning travellers or those in the high-risk age category over 70 years who are seeking additional information.

Ontario may have missed a third or more COVID-19 cases, Star analysis finds

This weekend the province, to help understand the numbers in greater detail, launched an enhanced version of the online tool. The new version asks people if they have just returned to Canada; if so the tool instructs them to self-isolate for 14 days. The updated version also asks people if they are over 70 or immunocompromised, and therefore at higher risk.

Local health units and Dr. David Williams, Ontario’s chief medical officer of health, are working together to further fine-tune the tool, a provincial official told the Star.

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In its news release announcing the new tool, the province said it is critical to providing “real-time data on the number and geography of users.” Meanwhile, Ontario is making plans to free up hospital beds and is in discussion with hotels in case there is a dramatic influx of patients over the next few weeks.

To put the online tool’s numbers in perspective, as of Sunday morning, Ontario was reporting 1,355 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the province, including two deaths. All of the province’s confirmed cases are patients who have tested positive for the virus; however, as the Star has reported, many people who doctors believe have the virus have not been tested because Ontario is focusing its testing efforts on front-line workers in hospitals and nursing homes, and people (including nursing home and homeless shelter residents) who come in contact with large groups of people.

There is also a testing backlog, which Ontario is gradually reducing. As of Sunday, there were 7,203 tests awaiting testing, a significant drop from 10,000 backlogged tests just a few days before.
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