Sharon Frandsen has learned a lot in the last nine days about Ontario’s COVID-19 testing system and the ways in which things can go wrong.
Frandsen has had three COVID tests, the last one on Sept. 21. She gets them every two weeks so she can visit her husband who lives in a nursing home in Midland.
She is a designated caregiver to her husband and works with the nursing home staff to help feed and care for him. But she can only do that when she can get in to see him.
She got her negative test result on Sept. 30 around supper time, leaving her with a six-day window to visit her husband.
In the nine days she waited for results, she faced roadblock after roadblock.
After a few days, her results weren’t posted to the Ontario Health website, which was nothing new for her. Her test from three weeks ago still hadn’t been posted. She called the testing centre, but they hadn’t seen the results. Worse news came when the province announced new testing criteria.
Her assessment centre in Midland said they wouldn’t be testing asymptomatic people any longer.
Not only was she stuck waiting for a negative result before she could visit her husband, she was also facing the possibility this was the last test she could have for a while.
With each passing day, her chances to visit her husband grew shorter.
She called the assessment centre regularly, checked the Ontario Health website, but to no avail. She called her MPP Jill Dunlop’s office, and emailed Premier Doug Ford. He did not respond, but Dunlop’s office directed her to the health unit.
Each time people “were kind,” but told her what she already knew. She could try a different assessment centre in another town. She’d have to wait in line for a long time. And there was no guarantee of her test results coming any sooner this time around.
Eventually, the Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit spoke with the region’s assessment centres to clarify the provincial testing priorities still included asymptomatic testing if it was required for someone to visit a loved one in a long-term care facility. She would be able to get future tests.
But she was still waiting on her last results.
“I’m finding out new stuff all the time,” said Frandsen. “No matter where I turned, I was hitting roadblocks.”
At the end of that road was her husband. She had already stayed away from him for months at the beginning of the pandemic. Now, when she was allowed to see him, a delayed test result was keeping her from him.
“It’s heartbreaking and it’s wrong,” she said.
On the phone with the assessment centre, Frandsen found out her results and others were sent somewhere else by mistake. It was finally posted to the Ontario Health website Sept. 30.
Frandsen sent them to the long-term care home immediately and booked a visit with her husband on Oct. 1.
All of Ontario is experiencing a backlog of tests. The Sept. 30 epidemiological summary posted by Public Health Ontario reported more than 60,000 tests awaiting results.
The number of tests processed in a single day has increased to between 35,000 and 40,000. In the early days of the pandemic, labs were processing fewer than 10,000 tests per day.
In the Simcoe-Muskoka region, the number of tests done in September increased by 25 per cent compared to August. Last week, about 55 per cent of test results were returned within two days of the swab test being administered, according to Dr. Charles Gardner, the area’s medical officer of health.
“It’s safe to assume we’re below average,” he said.
The doctor made some inquiries regarding delayed test results for his region and was told it was because there weren’t any local labs.
“Our swabs have to be shipped and that delays the turnaround time to some degree in getting results,” he said.
Assessment centres in the region are reporting long line-ups. Royal Victoria Regional Health Centre (RVH) in Barrie has had to post announcements that it reached capacity before closing time, turning vehicles away. On Sept. 21, Clinic ‘C’ reported completing 576 COVID swabs, a record for the testing site. Wait times can be up to five hours and results are taking between 72 and 90 hours to come back.
At the Orillia Soldiers' Memorial Hospital assessment centre, wait times also reached five hours last week and the centre is regularly marking new daily testing records.
In Collingwood, the drive-thru assessment centre offers testing by appointment only and has extended its hours to again include weekends in order to keep up with increased demand.
In Barrie, a new assessment centre has been set up at the former Barrie police headquarters on Sperling Drive to handle volume, and the clinic has been closed on the RVH grounds as of today.
“It’s a tough issue,” Gardner said of the testing backlog and lineups. “People are getting tested out of concern about increased transmission in the province.”
On Sept. 21, Ontario reported 425 new cases of COVID-19, the first time the daily report climbed above 400 since May. Since then, the numbers have kept climbing with 700 reported Sept. 28, 554 reported Sept. 29 and 625 reported Sept. 30.
There’s also a new dynamic with school-related cases. Gardner announced there were almost 300 people self-isolating due to high-risk exposure to COVID-19 from 11 school-related cases in the region.
Those people will need to seek testing if they develop any symptoms.
A student who stays home from school due to symptoms of illness, in many cases, needs to be tested for COVID-19.
The province has announced it will be allowing COVID-19 tests at pharmacies, but so far the only pharmacy in Simcoe-Muskoka offering tests is a Shoppers Drug Mart in Huntsville.
And the answer is not simply more testing sites and more swabbers.
“You can’t just increase how many people can have a swab taken … you have to increase lab capacity, too,” said Gardner.
Ford said on Sept. 30 the federal government’s plan to buy millions of rapid COVID tests will be a “game-changer.”
The deal was approved by Health Canada late Wednesday. As a result, Canada is purchasing 7.9 million kits from an American company called Abbott. The company says test results can be available in 13 minutes.
But as Frandsen has learned, even after promises are made, a lot can go wrong.