Efforts to expand COVID-19 testing limited by finite pool of qualified staff: Officials

Health officials in Ottawa who oversee COVID-19 testing say more qualified staff are needed in order to expand capacity.

Demand for testing has skyrocketed since schools reopened. Ottawa Public Health recommends children who exhibit COVID-19 symptoms stay home from school and be tested. This has led to long lines and long wait times at the main testing facility at Brewer Arena the past several days.

It's not families with children who are creating stress on the system, according to officials, but rather people with no COVID-19 symptoms who are seeking tests for peace of mind or another reason outside of a recommendation from health officials.

However, the critical issue facing the testing centres is one of human resources. 

Speaking to reporters at a media availability on Tuesday, Dr. Alan Forster, Vice President at the Ottawa Hospital and Testing Strategy Lead, said staff are being hired and trained to extend hours at the assessment centre at the Brewer Arena.

"We knew that in Stage 3, and with kids returning to school, we could see these volumes. To prepare, we had tripled staffing in the last month for testing children and youth at the centre," he said. "More are being trained and still more are being hired."

Nevertheless, he said that expanding testing capacity, and opening new testing sites, depends on the pool of medical professionals in the region. He called on others, including retirees, to offer their services in the fight against COVID-19.

"The region's ability to increase testing capacity and open more testing sites is affected by the human resource pool that is available," he said. "This finite human resource pool is now providing more care in hospitals, staffing more in long-term care homes, and there are more nurses in schools. This is all essential work, so if there are healthcare retirees willing to join the effort, they would be more than welcome as we build the additional testing capacity."

Dr. Forster said he expects the hours at the Brewer Arena to be expanded within the next week or so, but could not give a firm date. He expected they would increase the opening hours to approximately 8 p.m. or 9 p.m. daily.

He also suggested the Brewer Arena assessment centre may go to a booking system similar to what's in place at the drive-through testing site on Coventry Road; however, the COVID-19 care clinics on Moodie Drive and Heron Road would remain drop-in clinics because the hospitals that run them—Queensway Carleton and Montfort, respectively—are on a different electronic system from the Ottawa Hospital.

Don't get a test if you don't need one

In the meantime, Ottawa Public Health and hospital partners who manage the COVID-19 testing sites in the city are asking residents to consider carefully whether they genuinely need a test.

Ottawa's Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Vera Etches, said there are many people who arrive at testing sites who don't need to be there.

"People who are asymptomatic, who don’t have a history of an exposure," she said. "We want to have the space to prioritize those families where there are symptoms."

She also stressed that entire families do not need to be tested.

"If it's somebody who has symptoms in the family, it’s just the person with symptoms who needs to be tested. It's not the whole household."

Dr. Forster said asymptomatic people make up the majority of people who show up for testing.

"The asymptomatic person, someone showing up for testing for peace of mind or because they're about to attend a social event, they are the majority of people showing up and that creates a lot of pressure."

Both doctors noted that getting a COVID-19 test without symptoms or outside of contact tracing efforts has risks.

"There is potential harm when the value of asymptomatic testing is low and it's displacing people who need to have a test and the labs need to be able to turn around the results for control of outbreaks and school setting investigations," Dr. Etches said.

Dr. Forster noted that asymptomatic tests carry the risk of false positives or that they can create a false sense of security if results are negative.

"If someone is asymptomatic, it doesn't mean that they won’t become symptomatic later. They may be negative on the day they were tested and become positive later, so it's better to wait until you have symptoms or if you're part of an outbreak investigation."