Middlesex-London top doctor concerned over limited COVID-19 testing capacity

COVID-19 testing centre at the Oakridge Arena at 825 Valetta Street, London on May 26, 2020
One of two in London, the assessment centre at Oakridge Arena has seen a surge in visitors in recent weeks. Sawyer Bogdan/Global News

The medical officer of health for London and Middlesex County says he is concerned by limited testing capacity for COVID-19 in the region, adding that a number of cases may be going undiagnosed.

The assessment centres at Oakridge Arena and Carling Heights Optimist Community Centre both reached capacity before noon Monday, which has become a common reoccurrence in recent weeks amid a surge in those seeking testing.

This week, however, is set to bring some expanded options for coronavirus testing in the region.

Read more: Coronavirus: 8 cases in London-Middlesex as Ontario records new daily high of 700

During a media briefing hosted by the Middlesex-London Health Unit (MLHU) on Monday, medical officer of health Dr. Chris Mackie noted that local coronavirus case numbers have not spiked to the degree that’s been seen across Ontario.

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“We’re about a third of the provincial rate right now, but I don’t find that reassuring primarily because of the limited assessment centre situation,” said Mackie.

“We’ve had so many people that have been turned away, or not even seeking testing because of the long line ups, and that means that there are certainly many times more cases in the community than we’re able to diagnose right now.”

Read more: ‘Ontario is now in the 2nd wave of COVID-19’: Premier Doug Ford says

While London’s two assessment centres have been given plenty of attention over the past two weeks, Middlesex County Warden Cathy Burghardt-Jesson noted during Monday’s briefing that the challenges stretch outside of the city.

“County residents have had to travel to nearby urban centres in London and even outside of the Middlesex-London Health Unit’s service area,” said Burghardt-Jesson.

The warden did provide some relief on Monday with the announcement of the Middlesex-London Mobile Paramedic Testing Unit, which first held a soft launch in Strathroy on Friday.

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Burghardt-Jesson noted that the testing unit, which operates out of a retrofitted transit bus, will be parked at the Thames Centre Outdoor Recreation Complex in Dorchester on Wednesday, the Lucan Community Centre on Thursday and the Thorndale Fairgrounds on Friday. The unit will operate from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on those three days.

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Burghardt-Jesson added that the unit will be in Strathroy, Komoka and Ilderton next week. The warden says further dates and locations will be announced in the coming days.

Read more: Coronavirus testing to begin at select London, Ont., pharmacies as early as Sept. 29

Another testing option on the horizon comes in the form of a select few local pharmacies that have been approved by the Ontario government to provide coronavirus testing.

In a statement published last week, Mayor Ed Holder said the pharmacies would offer testing as early as Tuesday.

However, during Monday’s briefing, Acting Mayor Jesse Helmer said that an update on the matter had not been provided.

“I’m not aware of the specific locations yet,” said Helmer.

“As it was just decided very recently, I’m sure as soon as that is known, it will be communicated out as widely as possible.”

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Speaking to local pharmacies providing testing, the regional medical officer of health noted that setting up the capacity for COVID-19 testing can be a lengthy endeavour.

Mackie said both of London’s assessment centres had an all hands on-deck approach that was led by high-level partnerships and still took about two weeks to reach full testing capacity.

“It will take time to identify the pharmacies that are willing to take this on,” said Mackie.

“I would not anticipate that coming on-board before a couple weeks from now, at least.”

As for London’s two assessment centres, more work is being done to improve the experience for visitors.

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That’s according to Mike McMahon, the executive director of the Thames Valley Family Health Team (TVFHT), the organization responsible for running the assessment centres.

Some of that work includes improving on the newly-implemented ticket system. The system works by granting those in line a ticket, which guarantees them a test that day and allows them to come back later, instead of having to spend the duration of their wait in line.

“Whenever you’re telling somebody to return at a specific time, what we really want to be doing is being really confident about being able to serve people within that time,” said McMahon of the improvements they’re looking to make.

McMahon says the TVFHT also plans to focus on how they can better serve pedestrians, adding that the ticket system won’t benefit those without a vehicle.

“We’re working on making sure there’s equity with the system that we’re offering,” said McMahon.

Read more: Queuing nightmare continues as London COVID-19 assessment centre reaches capacity before opening

Another change this week comes from Western University, but will only serve a segment of the region’s population.

The university, which began providing on-campus earlier this month, announced last week that its mobile testing trailer outside of Western’s Social Science Centre would move indoors to the Western Student Recreation Centre starting Monday.

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This week, on-campus testing will run Monday to Friday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. with a dedicated hour for faculty and staff from 10 to 11 a.m. The university noted that Saturday testing may be available depending on the demand seen during the week.

Only Western faculty, staff and students will be permitted to the on-campus testing centre.