Coronavirus: Asymptomatic people clog testing line ups in Ottawa, officials say

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Ontario’s premier reacts to long COVID-19 testing wait times
WATCH ABOVE: Premier Doug Ford has vowed there will be an announcement from his government in response to long COVID-19 testing wait times. Shallima Maharaj has the details – Sep 15, 2020

A rising demand for coronavirus tests from Ottawa families has exhausted the city’s testing capacity as too many asymptomatic people are unnecessarily queuing for a test, according to health officials in the nation’s capital.

Residents lining up to get tested for the novel coronavirus at Ottawa’s Brewer Assessment Centre are facing long lines and four-hour waits in some cases.

The Ottawa Hospital, the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO) and Ottawa Public Health (OPH) said in a joint statement Tuesday that the Brewer site is seeing “record-setting volumes” of people looking for a coronavirus test.

Dr. Alan Forster, head of testing strategy at the Ottawa Hospital, said in a media availability Tuesday that families with children heading back to school are driving the new demand. Before now, most of the people presenting for testing were adults, but the demographics in the queue at Brewer Arena have shifted.

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“That’s put a pressure on our operations,” Forster said.

Dr. Vera Etches, Ottawa’s medical officer of health, told reporters that this wouldn’t be as big of an issue if there weren’t so many asymptomatic people also in line for a test.

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“We do see, among the adult population, people who don’t need to be there for testing,” she said.

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Forster noted asymptomatic residents are the majority of the people presenting for testing.

Most of these residents are looking for “peace of mind” about a potential exposure or have plans to attend an upcoming social event.

But a negative test can provide a “false sense of security,” Forster said.

Testing positive one day doesn’t mean that you won’t be infected after you leave the testing site, or that the virus isn’t already incubating in your body.

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“The value of asymptomatic testing is low,” Etches said.

She added that health officials are not trying to exclude anyone from receiving a test, but said the priority right now must be on families with students who are returning to in-class instruction.

The people who should be presenting for a test are those with symptoms or anyone who is a close contact of someone who recently tested positive for the virus, she said. Even within the household, it is only the parent or child who is specifically presenting symptoms who should be tested to confirm the case.

For those getting anxious about a tickle in their throat, Etches said they should change their behaviour to ease their concerns.

“If you are uncomfortable and feel you need a test because of some exposure that potentially happened, stop engaging in those behaviours that gave you exposure,” she said.

“That’s the first thing that will give you peace of mind.”

In the coming days, the Brewer Assessment Centre will be extending its daily testing period to 12 hours per day, seven days a week. It will also be implementing an advanced booking system for testing appointments, similar to the setup at the Coventry Road drive-thru testing centre, which will also be expanding to 12 hours daily service.

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Premier Doug Ford also said Tuesday he would make an announcement in the coming days to help reduce testing backlogs in Ottawa, as well as Toronto and Peel.

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Coronavirus: Ontario Premier Ford hints at announcement to reduce long lines at COVID-19 testing centres

Mayor Jim Watson tweeted that he spoke with Ford and thanked him for the impending help.

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Forster said the city is currently able to test 2,000 people per day, but hopes to raise that figure to 3,000 with the increased hours and add an extra 400-500 through mobile testing efforts. He noted that this is limited by the processing capacity of the city’s labs, which health-care partners are also working to increase.

Forster said the biggest barrier to increasing testing capacity is a lack of human resources, and called on recently retired nurses and healthcare workers to consider applying to help staff the centres.

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