KITCHENER -- Region of Waterloo Public Health officials have announced that symptomatic residents of the region will now be able to get tested for COVID-19.

Starting Friday, residents who think they may have COVID-19 can be referred to one of the region's five assessment centres through their primary care physician.

Acting Medical Officer Dr. Hsiu-Li Wang said during a media briefing that self-referral options for the assessment centres at St. Mary's General Hospital and Grand River Hospital are coming "very soon"—possibly as early as Friday afternoon.

Dr. Wang says that the decision to open testing up to the general public was made now that the priority testing at long-term care home has been done.

"We have completed whole-home testing of all long-term care homes," she said at the media briefing on Friday.

"Completing the one-time, whole-home testing means that our testing partners now have the capacity to test more residents."

Dr. Wang also says that the province has expanded its testing capacity and that it has worked to improve its lab system, something that had previously been pointed to as a bottle neck for efficient testing.

Earlier this week, a Waterloo Region man told CTV that he had been tested three times for COVID-19 after he says his first two samples didn't make it to the lab in time.

"They have indicated to us that they have the capacity," Dr. Wang said.

While the testing is an encouraging step in the right direction based on the province's three stage recovery plan, she says that it is only a tool in the fight against the pandemic.

"Testing is a monitoring tool that allows us to identify that our virus is in our community and manage positive cases accordingly," she said Friday.

She reiterates the importance of staying two metres apart, and encourages people to wear a non-medical mask in situations where physical distancing cannot be observed.

That, she says, is going to become more and more likely as the weather improves and provincial restrictions begin to ease.

The Region of Waterloo encourages people who think they may be symptomatic to use the online self-assessment tool. It can be used to get people in touch with a physician virtually and to expedite the process of getting tested.

Testing numbers have been low out of abundance of caution

Dr. Wang also said Friday that the public health unit had been under-reporting tests out of an abundance of caution.

"We are one of the health units that tracks and reports testing numbers on our public dashboard. Our numbers are provided by multiple sources, including our testing partners and from long-term care homes," she said.

"Since we first released our dashboard, we have been engaged in data quality checks. With the multiple sources, we wanted to be careful that we would not double count the number of tests that had been done. In the end, we ended up under-counting the number of tests that had been done."

As a result, Dr. Wang says that the total number of tests reported on the dashboard will increase substantially by Saturday morning. She estimated that the total will go up by about 3,000.

As of Friday morning, there were 10,770 tests reported in the region. There have been 983 confirmed cases in the region, including 559 recovered cases and 108 deaths.