Testing at Ontario’s COVID-19 assessment centres slows to a trickle

Ontario’s COVID-19 assessment centres are mostly empty, with only a handful of people showing up to be tested each day, according to research by CBC News.

The province’s hospitals established at least 68 assessment centres last month to screen for the coronavirus, yet medical professionals have been dissuading all but the highest-priority cases from going there because of shortages of testing equipment.

Even when people with COVID-19 symptoms get an official referral for testing, the shortages have prompted these centres to refuse to test 25 per cent to 30 per cent of those who showed up this past week, according to figures provided by the Ministry of Health.

The shortages raise questions about how quickly Ontario will boost its testing rate to 13,000 per day as demanded by Premier Doug Ford on Wednesday. The province reported 4,097 new test results Thursday. 

“The shortage of actual test swabs is dire and widespread,” said Helen Hsu, a physician working at an assessment centre in Ottawa.

Hsu said that assessment centre is no longer using the most-effective type of swabs to take a sample, known as nasopharyngeal swabs, which reach deep into the back of the nasal cavity. Instead, the centre is using throat swabs, which Hsu says have lower sensitivity to the virus and a higher rate of false negatives. 

“These swabs are far from perfect,” she said. “If [patients] get a negative test result, they should not assume they are in the clear and stop social isolation.” 

Priority cases expanded

CBC News has repeatedly asked the Ministry of Health to provide data on how many people are being tested at the assessment centres daily and how many are being turned away, but officials have yet to provide that information. 

Since they were set up in mid-March, the assessment centres were ordered to give testing priority to health-care workers and people from remote communities. 

Other cases designated by the province as a testing priority included hospital in-patients, along with residents of long-term care centres and retirement homes, but it is unclear that those cases would be tested at assessment centres.

The province expanded testing priorities on Thursday to include “symptomatic first responders” and “individuals referred for testing by local public health.”

Ontario expanded its testing capacity for COVID-19 by using private lab facilities, so the province can now process 13,000 tests per day. However, the number of tests being conducted each day across Ontario has fallen well below that figure. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

Turned away despite symptoms

Dozens of people have contacted CBC News to describe their experiences of being rejected for testing at the assessment centres despite showing symptoms. 

Diane Mossman, 77, said she was given an appointment Wednesday for the assessment centre at Michael Garron Hospital in Toronto after reporting symptoms of cough, difficulty taking deep breaths, extreme fatigue and mild fever. 

“There was no line-up. Only one person was ahead of me and almost finished. There was no one waiting to be seen after me,” Mossman said in an email.

Three health-care workers screened her before she saw a doctor, who Mossman says was apologetic but told her she didn’t meet the criteria for testing, despite her symptoms. 

Premier Doug Ford said ‘no more excuses’ Wednesday as he ordered officials to boost Ontario’s COVID-19 testing to 13,000 per day. The province reported just shy of 4,100 new test results on Thursday. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)

“I was so stunned to hear this and to realize that I couldn’t have the test, that I didn’t ask more questions,” said Mossman.

“I’m distressed at this situation. I’ve never felt this kind of sickness before, and I’m worried that I do have COVID.”

One sign of how narrowly Ontario is testing for the coronavirus: the percentage of positive tests is tracking far higher than in the rest of Canada.  

Over the past week, 11.4 per cent of Ontario’s newly reported tests have shown a confirmed case of COVID-19. Excluding Ontario, just 4.8 per cent of tests conducted in the rest of the country have come back as positive since testing began in January, according to data from the Public Health Agency of Canada. 

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