OTTAWA — Provinces are looking to expand COVID-19 testing as many Canadians wait long hours to be swabbed or can’t get in for testing at all.
Demand for testing surged in much of the country in recent days, as schools and universities reopened and the number of identified cases began to rise.
Ottawa public health officials said they’d seen record demand at testing sites since the weekend, and many people were turned away both Monday and Tuesday because the sites had reached capacity.
In London, Ont., two testing sites hit capacity in the afternoon Tuesday.
New testing centres have opened in Laval, Que., and Edmonton in the last week to accommodate rising demand. Quebec Premier Francois Legault said his province is trying to expand sites in regions that previously weren’t seeing much call for swabbings, as well as adding capacity to labs to do the actual tests, but he said getting equipment is taking time.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford said Tuesday the lineups for testing are “ridiculous” and he is trying to see if pharmacies can be used to test some asymptomatic people to take pressure off overloaded COVID-19 assessment centres.
Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliott said some increase in demand has been expected, “but perhaps not to this extent.”
Ottawa mother Robin MacIntyre was waiting in line with her daughter at Ottawa’s Brewer Park testing site for the second day Tuesday, after they failed to get in on Monday. She had already waited two hours Tuesday and was frustrated.
“I think this is ridiculous,” she said. “They knew this was coming.”
People started lining up two hours before the testing site opened at 9 a.m. and by mid-morning, the lineup snaked around a nearby soccer field four times. Some people brought lawn chairs and boxed lunches, entertaining their kids with smartphones and tablets, or let them play on a nearby playground. By 10:30 a.m. people at the back of the line were already being warned they wouldn’t get in, even though the site was open until 3:30 p.m.
MacIntyre wondered what is going to happen in the winter.
Ontario’s public health chief Dr. David Williams said Monday the province is looking at what to do about winter testing lines, including possibly finding a way for people to safely wait indoors.
Ottawa’s local authorities are trying to increase test capacity from 2,000 to 3,000 a day, and is hiring and training more staff over the next week. Dr. Alan Forster, a vice-president at the Ottawa Hospital who is overseeing testing for the Ottawa region’s COVID-19 response committee, said two local testing sites should be able to add four more hours per day within a week.
He said the No. 1 driver of the surge in demand for testing is kids.
But Ottawa officials are also desperately trying to convince adults who don’t have symptoms and have no known exposure to COVID-19 to stop coming in for tests. Forster said asymptomatic people who haven’t had close contact with someone who has COVID-19 are clogging up the system.
Ottawa public health chief Dr. Vera Etches said people without symptoms or a known exposure can give themselves peace of mind they don’t have COVID-19 by practising the public health precautions preached for months: wear a mask, keep your distance, avoid large gatherings and wash your hands.
The surge in cases is driving testing demand too because the number of potential exposures is growing. In London, testing demand soared after five students at Western University tested positive over the weekend.
Etches said people who are testing positive are also reporting more close contacts, which means more people have to be sent for testing. She said in March many people were reporting 15 to 20 close contacts, while in the summer, that had fallen to just two or three per person.
This month, she said some people have more than 100 contacts, and one even had more than 150.
Dr. Theresa Tam, the country’s chief public health officer, said Tuesday the federal government is offering federal lab capacity to help the surge in demand because getting testing done quickly is critical to identifying and isolating cases and controlling the pandemic.
Tam also said Canada needs to get more rapid tests, so results can be provided in under an hour rather than in one or two days. She said the faster tests still need to be approved by Health Canada and couldn’t say when that might happen.
Dr. Tony Mazzulli, microbiologist in chief at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto, said conducting a test on a sample takes less than 24 hours but it takes time to get the specimens from the test sites to the lab, and more time to get the results back to the testing site and then entered into a computer so patients can be contacted.
Mazzulli said his lab saw between 4,500 and 5,000 specimens a day for testing in the last two or three weeks, up from between 3,000 and 3,500 a day over the summer. It can do as many as 10,000 now and are working to get that to above 17,000 by mid-October.
With files from Paola Loriggio in Toronto, Morgan Lowrie in Montreal and Jordan Press in Ottawa.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 15, 2020.
Mia Rabson, The Canadian Press