A surge in demand for COVID-19 tests across the country is pushing some hospitals to their limit and causing delays in laboratory results, as growing cases of variant-related infections are driving more Canadians to get swabbed.
In Nova Scotia, which reported another record-high 485 new cases of COVID-19 on Monday, public-health officials say they can’t keep up with their case management system, and the soaring number of tests means those with positive cases are waiting longer for phone calls to confirm they have the virus.
Hospitals around the country, meanwhile, say their testing facilities are under strain, with cases connected to the Omicron variant only expected to rise. Some public-health units are beginning to prioritize tests for vulnerable populations and essential workers as the system grapples with the increasing demand.
At Toronto Western Hospital, the COVID-19 assessment centre “is full every day and there is more demand than we can accommodate,” Gillian Howard, a spokeswoman for the University Health Network, or UHN, said in an e-mail on Sunday. Other hospitals from Quebec, where the Omicron variant appears to be doubling its spread every few days, to British Columbia are reporting similar challenges.
Quebec’s coronavirus labs analyzed more than 45,000 tests on Sunday, with 10.1 per cent of them coming back positive for COVID-19. Testing is rising as that province reported 4,571 new COVID-19 cases Monday, a new single-day record since the beginning of the pandemic.
Nova Scotia’s health authority completed 9,198 tests on Sunday – a volume of testing that’s causing problems for contract tracing, prompting public-health officials to ask those with the virus to inform their close contacts instead of waiting for a call from a provincial employee. Those close contacts are now being asked to isolate for 72 hours before getting a lab-based test, in an effort to ease some pressure on the testing system.
“Because of a spike in testing and positive cases, public health is experiencing some delays in follow-up. Public health will try to contact anyone confirmed positive by the lab within 24 hours to provide information on required isolation and testing. All cases will be asked to contact their close contacts,” the province’s Department of Health and Wellness said in a statement.
Elsewhere, long lines of people waiting to be tested or to pick up rapid test kits are becoming common in communities where cases are climbing. Nationally, nearly 103,000 lab tests for COVID-19 were performed last week, according to Health Canada.
While the increase in testing is already causing problems in some areas, Health Canada says there’s plenty of capacity left in the country’s ability to test for the coronavirus. Canada’s testing system should have the ability to perform as many as 200,000 tests a day, based on modelling, according to the federal government.
But UHN’s Ms. Howard, who said people are waiting about 24 hours for test results, explained that increasing testing capacity isn’t that simple, and comes with several challenges at this time of year.
“Increasing capacity at any of the centres will require more space, more staff and longer hours, which will be a challenge at this time with holidays and the inescapable fact that health care workers need some time to rest,” she said.
Ontario completed more than 44,000 tests on Sunday, the highest single-day demand on the health system since May. The province’s COVID-19 Diagnostic Laboratory Network says it’s completing 90 per cent of lab tests within two days of collection, and 69 per cent within 24 hours of collection.
Over the past two weeks, there has been a roughly 25-per-cent increase in COVID-19 tests performed at Michael Garron Hospital’s COVID-19 assessment centre and at seven outreach centres in East Toronto, Denny Petkovski, director of corporate projects and volunteer services at Michael Garron Hospital, said in a statement on Sunday. He said he expected the hospital’s staff will be able to meet the growing demand for tests, however.
In Ottawa, public-health officials say staff are working overtime to deal with a surge in testing that has also been complicated by the redeployment of health care workers to support the province’s mass vaccination and booster campaigns. The capital region’s lab performed 4,896 tests on Sunday, and says it’s now taking about 35 hours between when a swab is taken to producing a test result.
Much of the testing strain is being blamed on the highly contagious Omicron variant, which is causing more community-based spread, and higher numbers of people who are contacts of people who have been diagnosed with the virus.
“It’s all Omicron-driven,” said Brian Conway, medical director of the Vancouver Infectious Diseases Centre. “Because we’re seeing record numbers of cases in many provinces, this will lead to record demand on the testing capacity.”
While concerns around Omicron variant are high, not everyone should get tested, Dr. Conway said. People who are asymptomatic and have no reasonable history of exposure, but want to get tested for peace of mind or in order to attend indoor gatherings, should stay home instead of putting undue stress on testing facilities, he said.
“Maybe if these individuals understand that that’s not the right use for a test, that may also help to some extent alleviate the backlog, but I’m pretty sure it’s not going to be the entire solution,” he said. “[However] if you’re concerned, right now with Omicron, you need to go get a test, if you’re legitimately concerned. The reason for that is we need to identify and interrupt transmission networks.”
Across the country, there have been nearly 51 million lab tests for the coronavirus performed since the pandemic began, while testing capacity has been steadily increased. Federal officials have also recently doubled the capacity at airports to test incoming travellers, to nearly 21,000 tests a day as of Dec. 16.
Some provinces where cases have not grown as quickly are working to increase their ability to test, ahead of an anticipated spike in Omicron-related infections. That includes Alberta, which is completing an average of 8,000 tests a day, with results for most tests available within 24 hours.
Many provinces are also trying to make self-administered rapid tests more widely available, as officials try to ease demands on their lab-based testing system. The federal government says it’s distributed more than 107 million of these rapid tests to the provinces and territories, 35 million of them this month alone.
Nova Scotia is distributing 400,000 rapid test kits to people at libraries and liquor stores, as well as at pop-up sites in communities where cases are most elevated. Nova Scotia, like neighbouring New Brunswick, also sent children home with rapid tests to monitor for cases during the holiday break.
The province’ top doctor said making those rapid tests widely available was critical ahead of the holiday season when social gatherings typically increase. He said the tests add “an extra layer of protection if you’re hosting or attending gatherings.”
“While we stopped recommending general asymptomatic testing a while ago, we recognize it’s another way to keep gatherings safe over the holidays so we’re making rapid tests more widely available for the season,” said Robert Strang, Chief Medical Officer of Health for Nova Scotia.
With reports from Jill Mahoney and The Canadian Press
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