October – Time to Pivot: COVID-19 Testing Update

Written by Communications, October 15, 2020

A week seems like a long time in the life of a pandemic. So much can change! It’s been a week since the province stepped back from its earlier approach of offering widespread testing for COVID-19. We owe a great deal of gratitude to Peterborough Regional Health Centre (PRHC) for hosting the assessment centre and for partnering with our community paramedics to provide a drive-through option. Together, they have tested about 31,000 residents in Peterborough, or about 20% of our population. And they have ensured rural and First Nations communities also had access. These results boosted our confidence to re-open our local economy with new public health measures in place. They helped us take the bold and needed step of welcoming students back into local classrooms.

But the safe operation of schools has put an additional burden on our provincial testing capacity. Within days of schools opening, our assessment centre and drive-through sites were overwhelmed. Tests that used to take minutes to administer and 48 hours to report were taking hours and days. What we experienced in Peterborough was no different from what was happening in communities everywhere. Thankfully, the Premier introduced changes to the provincial testing strategy and our drive-through was mandated to switch to an appointment-based system. We have some relearning to do.

It is no longer possible for someone without symptoms to request a COVID-19 test. Not unless that person works in a long-term care setting and requires testing twice a month, or perhaps is a visitor to a resident of a long-term care home, who must test negative in the 14-day period prior to the visit. Some people need a test to travel or prior to having surgery. But for the most part, testing is being reserved for people who are ill.

Those who are sick enough to need a physician for an assessment and diagnosis should seek an appointment at the PRHC assessment centre. They have extended their hours and are building their capacity to see more patients. But those who have mild symptoms only and who have failed the online screening tool, like children who have been advised to be tested before returning to school, can now access an appointment at the drive through online. Both PRHC and Peterborough Public Health (PPH) host the link to the online booking calendar on our websites.

The other group of people who can be tested are those who have been identified by a public health nurse to require testing because they are close contacts of someone who has COVID-19. PPH will let you know if your need a test. Downloading the COVID ALERT app is another way to make sure you will be notified if you have been exposed and would benefit from testing. Depending on your risk, sometimes we may tell you to get tested right away, and other times we may advise to wait a certain number of days, or only if you develop symptoms. But with our guidance, we can and will help you access testing. As we would in the case of an outbreak, where more widespread testing might be needed.

There’s lots on the horizon – different technologies like rapid tests will be coming to Ontario – and there is a provincial working group working on a strategy for how and where they will be used. Blood testing is available but limited to situations where children or adults with both severe illness and a negative swab who require confirmation in order to guide their treatment. We also have other testing options for children or others for whom nasal testing is not possible. There’s a lot of pressure to expand the tools we use to identify and diagnose people who are infected.

With cases of COVID on the rise through-out Ontario, timely access to both testing and to results are even more critical to ensure we can identify cases early enough to prevent further transmission. But testing alone will not get us out of this pandemic. We all need to ensure we are doing our best to prevent transmission in the first place. It’s time to burst any remaining social bubbles and get right back to staying within our household groups as the best way to prevent and contain COVID-19. Fortunately, this time around we have put the public health measures in place to prevent the need for a full-blown lock down. Until there’s an effective vaccine, human behaviours are both our best bet and our weakest link.