Hospitals failed to flag 700 positive COVID-19 tests to Ontario’s public health units

Hundreds of confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the Toronto area were not flagged to public health officials because of a mixup between two hospitals, CBC News has learned. 

The positive tests were completed as far back as April but the 12 public health units involved were only notified about the oversight in the past few days. The bulk of the cases involve people living in Toronto, Peel Region and York Region. 

The oversight means thousands of contacts of the confirmed cases were not traced by public health workers, potentially contributing to wider spread of the coronavirus in recent weeks. 

The tests were conducted by the William Osler Health System, which has hospital sites in Etobicoke and Brampton, as well as a drive-through COVID-19 assessment centre. The test samples were processed by the laboratory at Mount Sinai Hospital in downtown Toronto.

Staff at each hospital thought that notifying the public health units about the approximately 700 positive tests was the responsibility of the other hospital, according to a source informed about the mixup. The actual responsibility lay with William Osler, said provincial officials.    

In an email Monday, a spokesperson for William Osler Health System declined to comment on what happened, and referred all questions to Ontario Health, the provincial agency that oversees hospitals and the COVID-19 lab system.


A worker applies sealing tape on a temporary hallway leading to the COVID-19 testing centre at Mt. Sinai Hospital in Toronto. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)

Gap in reporting 

Public health units, the hospital and the province are now trying to figure out exactly how many cases were missed.  

“We were notified of this matter over the weekend,” said Toronto Public Health’s director of media relations Lenore Bromley in an email to CBC News. She said the public health unit has been asked to direct all media requests to Ontario Health. 

“We were made aware of William Osler’s gap in reporting to public health units this past weekend,” said Hayley Chazan, a spokesperson for Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliott, in an email to CBC News on Monday

“Ontario Health, which is responsible for the province’s COVID-19 lab network, has worked with the hospital to correct the issue,” Chazan said.

Ontario Health did not say how many positive tests were not reported to public health units but did not dispute the figure of roughly 700. 

“Following a thorough investigation, it was determined that COVID-19 positive test results from one of the COVID-19 provincial testing laboratories and used by the William Osler Health System assessment centre had not been reported to 12 local Public Health Units where the cases reside,” said a spokesperson for Ontario Health in an email Monday responding to questions from CBC News.

“Most of the cases are in Toronto, Peel and York public health jurisdictions and the majority of these tests came from Osler’s drive-thru assessment centre at Etobicoke General Hospital,” said the email.

“Over the weekend, public health units began identifying and confirming with patients, starting with those who had been tested within the last 14 days, to ensure contact tracing and case management began,” said Ontario Health. “All parties are working to ensure this situation does not happen again, and steps taken to prevent re-occurrence. “

Many of the positive test results have now been added to Ontario’s public health database but about 430 will be added to the count in the coming days, a senior provincial official told CBC News on Monday evening.   

Ontario’s testing and lab system has faced repeated challenges and criticism since COVID-19 was declared a pandemic.

  • In late March, lab capacity was so backlogged that people were waiting more than five days for test results.
  • In early April, many people with clear symptoms of COVID-19 were turned away from assessment centres because of a provincial policy limiting tests to high-priority groups. 
  • Throughout May, the province repeatedly failed to hit its target of completing 16,000 tests per day. 

The province is now allowing anyone who fears they have been exposed to COVID-19 to get a test and is aiming to process 20,000 tests per day.

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