COVID-19: London, Ont. testing capacity feeling the pressure amid case spike, Omicron

The Carling Heights COVID-19 assessment centre in London, Ont. in October 2020. Google Maps

The London, Ont., region has recorded an upswing in COVID-19 tests over the last two weeks amid a surge in cases and mounting concerns about the Omicron variant, resulting in a capacity crunch and longer wait times for those looking to get swabbed.

As local case numbers have shot up — the regional seven-day average stood at 64.7 on Wednesday, up from 19.3 two weeks prior on Dec. 1 — COVID-19 testing locations have seen a rise in demand.

The most recent data from the health unit shows at least 8,720 people were tested between Dec. 5 and Dec. 11, the highest number of tests in a single week since May. It’s also an increase of nearly 1,800 people from a week earlier, and roughly 2,500 more compared to two weeks earlier.

“We recognize that testing capacity in the region is strained. Our partners who oversee testing capacity are aware of this,” said Dr. Alex Summers, the region’s acting medical officer of health, during Thursday’s media briefing.

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“There are efforts being made to add additional capacity. However, it will be a challenge and we recognize that frustration.”

Read more: Vaccines not enough to curb Omicron spread, stronger public measures needed: Ontario modelling

With the closure of the Oakridge Arena assessment centre in mid-July, the city has one mass testing clinic in operation, located at the Carling Heights Optimist Community Centre on Elizabeth Street.

The centre, which is operated by London Health Sciences Centre (LHSC), books up to five days in advance, but had no available spots as of Thursday afternoon. The facility has tested an average of 501 people per day over the last seven days, up from an average of 434 two weeks ago.

“We’ve definitely seen a significant increase in those being tested and seeking to be tested at the Carling assessment centre, but in general across Middlesex-London and all of Ontario for that matter,” said Dr. Adam Dukelow, LHSC’s chief medical officer, in an interview on Thursday.

“This relates to, obviously, rising case counts in our community and across the province, and is also related to the Omicron variant.”

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The Carling Heights centre, he said, has been “consistently” reaching its 600-test maximum, and that further increases to testing capacity are limited by an already stretched-thin health-care workforce.

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“At the same time testing needs are ramping up, we’re also engaged with our health unit in ramping up third-dose vaccination … As well, our hospitals are quite busy and we’re anticipating becoming more busy in the coming days and weeks,” he said.

In addition, he says, health-care providers are just plain exhausted after 21 months of overtime and extra shifts, adding to the staffing challenges. In some cases, providers who had planned to retire before the pandemic began, but who stayed on to help, have since left the profession.

Read more: Burnt-out health-care workers fear Omicron surges in Canadian hospitals

“We’re looking at creative solutions. Students are being employed to do work, as well a number of other items are being done in all health sectors in order to meet the need,” Dukelow said.

The possibility of reopening the Oakridge Arena assessment centre has “come up from time to time,” Dukelow said, however he notes that the organization is currently focused on increasing vaccination rates and increasing capacity at Carling.

“For now, we do have space there and equipment. We just need the people,” he said of the Carling site.

“Hopefully wouldn’t get to a point where we would also need to open up a second assessment site, especially given that there’s rapid tests out there as well now to play a part in in the whole process.”

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It’s not just Carling Heights that’s feeling the testing capacity pinch.

Londoners turning to one of the alternatives provided on the Carling Heights booking website also face a week-long wait to get swabbed.

As of Thursday afternoon, the MyHealth testing clinic on Wharncliffe Road North was booked up until Dec. 23, while Dynacare‘s Dundas Street East facility had no available appointments until Dec. 22.

Similarly, LifeLabs‘ Fanshawe Park Road facility, open only on Thursdays and Sundays, had no available slots until Dec. 23.

At least 15 pharmacies in the city provide COVID-19 testing, however what is offered is wildly inconsistent and varies by pharmacy, with some offering testing to asymptomatic people only, and others providing only rapid antigen tests.

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Those symptomatic or in close contact with a positive case and unable to get tested are urged to self-isolate, the health unit says.

Read more: Omicron FAQ: Everything you need to know about the COVID-19 variant

Demand is being driven in part by the highly contagious Omicron variant, which the province’s COVID-19 Science Advisory Table said Thursday is already dominant in Ontario.

The variant, which the advisory table estimates infects 6.1 times more individuals than the Delta variant, has seen cases double every two to four days in other countries, including the United Kingdom, Denmark and South Africa where it was originally detected.

Without further intervention, the science table’s modelling suggests Ontario is poised to see more than 10,000 new daily cases by Christmas if stronger public health measures aren’t implemented.

The first confirmed Omicron case in the London and Middlesex region came just last week. Since then, the health unit has stated that it will treat every positive COVID-19 case as if it were Omicron.

At least 13 local schools were closed as of Thursday as a result of COVID-19, with some closures potentially linked to Omicron and numerous close contacts.

Dr. Adalsteinn Brown, co-chair of the province’s science table, said Thursday that he hoped to dispel assertions that the Omicron variant was less severe than Delta.

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“It does cause serious disease,” he said. “Hospital rates have risen in South Africa where it first took hold. It’s not just a case of the sniffles.”

Read more: Demand outpacing capacity for COVID-19 boosters: MLHU

To fight against the new variant, the province announced on Wednesday that all adults age 18 and older would be eligible to book an appointment for a COVID-19 booster shot as of Dec. 20.

Evidence suggests two doses of an mRNA vaccine have about 35 per cent effectiveness against Omicron 14 weeks after receiving a second dose, the science table said. With a third dose, effectiveness jumps to 75 per cent in the first month.

During Thursday’s media briefing, Dr. Alex Summers implored residents to get the booster, saying it will play an important role, particularly for those over the age of 50.

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Summers said the health unit was working to accommodate the sudden spike in eligible residents — the eligibility change was previously expected for Jan. 4 — but stressed that, as with the testing centres, staffing remained a challenge.

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“The Middlesex-London Health Unit has added 30,000 appointments since last Friday, between Friday and up until Jan. 13,” he said.

The Earl Nichols vaccination site, set to reopen on Jan. 6, is now taking appointments, and the Caradoc Community Centre and Agriplex are working to expand their operations.

“However, I do want to temper expectations,” Summers said. “Things are moving very quickly and it takes a village to run a vaccination clinic.”

“We have immunizers, but we only have so many immunizers. We have administrative support, but we only have so much administrative support.”

In addition to the mass vaccination clinics, COVID-19 shots are also being doled out at local pharmacies, primary care settings, and at CF Masonville Place. The pop-up clinic saw 417 people on Wednesday, Summers said.

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Premier Doug Ford also announced capacity limits for venues of more than 1,000 people, along with a holiday testing blitz to distribute two million rapid tests at pop-up sites in high-traffic settings like libraries, malls, transit hubs and liquor stores.

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Late Thursday, the LCBO said that six London stores would begin distributing the tests starting Friday.

The province notes “additional pop-ups, including participating LCBO locations, will be added upon confirmation by individual locations with the website updated weekly. No appointment will be required.”

— with files from Jacquelyn LeBel and The Canadian Press

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