A medical health official in eastern Ontario says the slow laboratory response time for COVID-19 testing is hampering the ability of local public health officials to effectively track contacts and control outbreaks.
Dr. Robert Cushman, interim health medical officer for the Renfrew County and District Health Unit, says universal testing for COVID-19 has led to significant problems, such as expired samples and test results that take longer than seven days to recover.
He says slow response times at Ottawa labs where the health unit sends its samples for processing have hampered investigations of COVID-19 cases at a local school and popular gym.
“It’s bad science to do universal testing, but it’s good policy,” he says.
Cushman says his health unit received results five days later in which the samples had expired before the lab could process them, so another test was needed.
Epidemiologists across the country believe that mass testing is the best way to identify and control COVID-19 outbreaks. But Cushman says that requires testing capabilities that are not currently available.
“I think, in principle, it makes a lot of sense, but in practice it’s starting to affect our ability where the action is,” he says.
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Cushman says Renfrew County, a rural region northwest of Ottawa, “has been the envy of the province” with its low COVID-19 case count.
“But things have changed dramatically since the end of August,” he says.
The region has had 42 confirmed cases of COVID-19 since the pandemic began, but there is an outbreak at a school in Pembroke, Ontario, that prompted Cushman and his team to shut it down until further notice. Four employees tested positive for the disease.
There has also been a case at a local gym that is open 24 hours a day, Cushman says. Researchers from the public health unit have identified more than 100 contacts to trace.
“The government has to have the courage to say, look, public health can’t do effective contact tracing unless they do strategic testing,” says Cushman.
“When we try to investigate an outbreak in a school or gym, we really can’t have four, five, six or seven day deliveries if you really want to identify and control an outbreak.”
Ontario Medical Director of Health Dr. David Williams also criticized the slow response times in Ottawa.
“I’ve heard of long delays in getting results and that’s not acceptable,” Williams said.
He said that city labs, overseen by Ottawa Hospital, are dealing with “logistical problems that they are trying to solve.”
The hospital did not immediately provide comment.
The demand for tests in Ottawa far exceeds the supply; many wait hours for a test and many others leave without getting one.
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That same lawsuit has also hit Renfrew County with the outbreak and children returning to school, Cushman says.
“We’ve done a lot of really good tests and we’re opening additional tests, but the results from our lab are so late that you start to guess what you’re doing,” he says.
“On top of that we’ve had a gym and school with positive cases, the ‘Johnny has a cold’ test got in our way in terms of how we can better focus our energy and speed up the gym contact tracing test and school.”
He says the staff have also been distracted by the numerous phone calls from people wondering when they will receive their test results.
“That diverts our attention from what is really important,” he says.
Last week, Dr. Vanessa Allen, head of microbiology and laboratory science at the Ontario Public Health Laboratory, said the provincial capacity is approximately 40,000 tests per day and growing.
He said response times are closer to capacity and the goal is to deliver 60% of results in one day and 80% in two days.
Given capacity and demand issues, Cushman says strategic testing is one way to help public health researchers address outbreaks and conduct more effective contact tracing.
“I’m going to be like the skunk at the garden party when I tell people ‘by the way, please let us do strategic tests,’ I’m going to be very unpopular,” he said.
The rapid home test similar to a pregnancy test is another tool that would help public health researchers tremendously, he said.
Health Minister Patty Hajdu said Wednesday that Ottawa is reviewing applications for rapid test devices, but will not approve them until they meet Canada’s precision standards.