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A health-care worker tests a woman at a pop-up COVID-19 assessment centre at the Angela James Arena in Toronto on May 19.Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

Ontario laboratory workers are putting in long hours and being asked to cancel vacation plans to handle a huge surge in COVID-19 tests, the head of an association representing them said Wednesday, calling for the government to better support the profession.

Michelle Hoad, CEO of the Medical Laboratory Professionals’ Association of Ontario, said when COVID-19 hit, 70 per cent of the province’s labs were already short-staffed and many workers have since retired early or left the profession due to the pressures of the pandemic.

Ms. Hoad said that has left remaining laboratory assistants and medical laboratory technologists working “beyond humanly possible” to ensure that COVID-19 testing and other diagnostic tests are completed in a timely fashion, especially since the Omicron variant caused the need for PCR tests to soar.

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“We are starting to notice that surge in testing is really, really difficult,” she said in a phone interview Wednesday.

“I had a conversation yesterday, where we had a medical lab technologist that was going into a lab working a 12-hour shift as a [medical lab technologist] and then staying and working a second 12-hour shift as a lab assistant, because there’s just so many PCR tests coming into our labs right now.”

Ms. Hoad said the recent surge in COVID-19 tests has laboratory professionals working more overtime and reporting burnout.

She said 95 per cent of labs in Ontario are currently “not staffed the way they need to be to deal with the demand” and lab workers are struggling with mental health issues after months of long hours.

“We are also starting to notice many of our lab professionals that are reaching sort of the end of their rope. They have been at this now for 20 plus months,” Ms. Hoad said.

On Wednesday, Ontario reported 4,383 new COVID-19 cases based on 55,381 tests processed by laboratories across the province.

The province’s top doctor said Tuesday that Ontario is preparing to change its approach to COVID-19 testing and contact tracing as the Omicron variant strains resources, with residents being warned they could face long waits for tests.

Ottawa Public Health this week asked residents who have symptoms but can’t access a timely test to assume they are infected and self-isolate. On Wednesday, The Middlesex-London Health Unit also advised residents who develop respiratory symptoms to consider their illness as COVID-19, even without a positive test result.

While PCR tests continue to be sent to labs in large volumes, Ms. Hoad said some labs are reporting delays in other forms of diagnostic testing.

“We have heard from some labs that there has been a delay in turnaround times for regular testing. We specifically have heard from some hospitals, there have been some delay in results for cancer testing,” she said.

“We now are asking staff to do the best they can, but there are priorities being identified now.”

In late August, the Medical Laboratory Professionals’ Association of Ontario called on the provincial government to invest $6.2-million over four years to address what it called a severe shortage of medical laboratory technologists in Ontario laboratories.

Ms. Hoad said investment was still needed.

“It would be unfortunate if our current problem stays the way it is, because in the next six to 12 months, we don’t want to see turnaround times affected in all labs. That would be devastating,” she said.

“Lab professionals are at the centre of health care, like everything that happens in our health care system runs through the lab … so we have to make sure that just because we may not see these people in a lab, they are a priority and we need to consider what they need.”

Ontario Health, which oversees the provincial health system, did not immediately provide comment.

This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

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