With many of Ottawa’s coronavirus testing centres closed Monday ahead of a planned shift to an appointment-based booking system, those seeking tests in the nation’s capital in recent days have been left confused by mixed messages from various levels of public health officials.
The primary Brewer, Moodie and Heron testing centres were closed to walk-ins on Monday, while the appointment-based tests at the Coventry Road drive-thru site and Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario’s site at Brewer Arena were still running.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford announced Friday that walk-in testing at centres across the province would be closed on Sunday and Monday in preparation for a new, appointment-only booking system set to start on Tuesday.
Messages were muddled starting on Sunday, as the Brewer Arena site was still accepting walk-in testing despite the provincial directive. Global News visited the site on Sunday and confirmed walk-ins were indeed still being accepted.
Global News reached out to Ottawa Public Health, Ontario Health and the Ottawa Hospital, which runs the Brewer testing centre, for clarification on walk-in testing at the site but did not receive a clear answer.
The closures on Monday were also not clearly communicated, evidenced by residents such as Fred Gloade driving out to sites such as the Moodie Care Clinic, only to find the centre was closed when he arrived.
Gloade, who provides care for elderly family members and said he gets tested regularly to avoid passing on an infection, said he even saw signs on the highway signalling that the west end site was open on his way in.
“It just seems like more chaos after more chaos,” Gloade told Global News after being shut out from the site. He said he wants to see the government move faster to implement rapid testing technologies to speed up the processing time.
Dr. Raywat Deonandan, an epidemiologist and associate professor at the University of Ottawa, told Global News the confusion around testing is coming from a “disconnect” between the province and local public health units.
“There is chaos in public health across the province,” Deonandan said.
“I have no idea what’s going on communication-wise in Ontario. And most people have no idea what’s going on either. There’s a disconnect between local public health and provincial public health, and that’s creating a fair amount of chaos and some conflict, frankly.”
Dr. Vera Etches, Ottawa’s medical officer of health, acknowledged the confusion surrounding testing in recent days during a press conference Monday afternoon.
“I appreciate that it can, at times, feel difficult to fully grasp the local guidance, regional, provincial, information across provinces,” she said.
“We’re working hard to make sure the information is as clear as possible so residents and visitors are equipped to make the right decision for them and for their families.”
While OPH is not responsible for running any of the testing centres in Ottawa, Etches said her team did reach out to the Ottawa Hospital for information on whether the Brewer testing site was open on Sunday to ensure their website information was accurate.
OPH would not confirm to Global News on Sunday, however, why the site was open, and deferred comment to the hospital, which then deferred to Ontario Health.
The provincial health unit said Sunday that “assessment centres were asked to discontinue walk-in testing services today; we understand they should be doing so soon, if they haven’t already.”
Asked about the situation over the weekend on Monday, Health Minister Christine Elliott suggested that “accommodations” might have been made to test people at Brewer who were showing COVID-19 symptoms, “which is in the interests of everyone’s health and safety.”
Dr. Nili Kaplan-Myrth, a family physician in Ottawa, tweeted out Sunday that the Brewer testing centre was open despite messaging from the province.
She told Global News that she wanted to make sure her patients and those who might not have a family doctor were aware of all the testing options available to them.
Ford has said the planned lull during the transition to appointment-based testing is a “critical opportunity” to clear the backlog of more than 90,000 unprocessed tests across the province, a move that frustrates Kaplan-Myrth.
She cited Etches’ comments last week, in which she declared Ottawa’s health-care system is in “crisis” due to the pandemic, as an example of Ontario’s misplaced priorities on testing.
“In the middle of a crisis, you don’t shut down testing,” she said.
Not testing, which could translate to lower daily COVID-19 increases, will ultimately create an “illusion” of an easing coronavirus situation in Ontario, she said.
Deonandan, meanwhile, said there might be a slight dip in daily infection reports due to the testing lag but, overall, he doesn’t expect major changes to the province’s reporting data while working through the backlog.
Kaplan-Myrth said shifting to an online booking system can also create barriers for people from marginalized communities, who might not be tech savvy or have access to a reliable internet connection to book an appointment.
As compared to the long lineups that plagued Ottawa’s testing centres last month, an online booking system makes access to testing an “invisible problem,” as it’s no longer clear how many people are getting turned away if they are unable to book an appointment.
Both Kaplan-Myrth and Deonandan told Global News that the Ontario government should have spent more during the summer to increase testing capacity in the province ahead of the second wave of the pandemic.
— With reporting from Global News’ Abigail Bimman and Bryan Mullan