Long lineups for COVID-19 tests have Montreal authorities scrambling to increase sites

Quebec’s COVID-19 cases have shot up again recently, right back to the levels they were at last spring—but, for somewhat mysterious reasons, the availability of tests doesn't seem to have kept pace.

Montrealers reported hours-long lineups on Tuesday as they tried to get tested, with young families, in particular, stuck waiting on the sidewalk with kids after being notified of school cases.

En pleine 4ième vague, rentrée scolaire, on a un seul centre de dépistage dans l’Est de Montréal? Décision éclairée ? Sur Chauveau on est juste des familles avec enfants a attendre sur la rue au complet… @PierreLBlais @cdube_sante pic.twitter.com/xHLQLBRbls

— Guillaume H. Jaeger (@guillheb) September 14, 2021

It’s no wonder it was difficult -- people appear to be trying to go to walk-in sites, and those seem to be limited right now.

City health authorities are now scrambling to open test spots, but they say there are also other options that aren't being used, including booking appointments online.

“We've seen an increase in demand for testing over the course of the last few days,” said Jean Nicolas Aubé, the spokesperson for the Centre-Sud health district.

“To see an increase is good news for us, because as soon as people get tested, the sooner we can intercept the virus and limit its damages.”

However, the wait time at the Hotel-Dieu Hospital test site on Tuesday—the main test site for the entire Centre-Sud district, which spans a vast chunk of downtown—was long, with people queueing up for as much as an hour, Aubé acknowledged.

“We’re working on [offering] more testing sites to the Montreal population on our territory,” he said.

A doctor said the bottleneck will discourage people from getting tested.

“Today, I advised patients with COVID symptoms who came to see me in a clinic for their symptoms to go for a test,” wrote family doctor Vincent Demers on Twitter, in French.

“2.5 hours of waiting in screening centers! Enough to discourage them... I do not understand these delays after 18 months of the pandemic.”

2,5h d'attente dans les centres de dépistage! Assez pour les décourager…��

Je ne comprends pas ces délais après 18 mois de pandémie.

— Vincent Demers�� (@ieVincentDemers) September 14, 2021

To cope with the lineups at Hotel-Dieu, "we're using the coupon system," Aubé explained.

“If folks come around to get tested, we give them a coupon and they come back later, so we don't have a huge lineup.”

OPTIONS SEEMINGLY LIMITED COMPARED TO LAST YEAR

In the city centre, spanning the eastern tip of the island to Lachine and the West Island, and below Highway 40, there are five places that allow walk-in tests.

The Jewish General Hospital and the Douglas Hospital in Verdun are open full-time, while the Parc-Ex CLSC is only open five afternoons per week.

The Hotel-Dieu is listed online as only open to walk-ins part of the time.

And the Clinique Chauveau, east of the Biodome, also offers walk-in gargle testing.

Montrealers say that earlier this year there were more options, though there’s no online record of exactly which sites were available.

Residents of Centre-Sud, for example, have told CTV that the CLSC on rue de la Visitation used to offer fast walk-in tests.

A family in Saint-Henri told CTV that they used to go to a test site at the Glen site of the MUHC, including a convenient drive-through option, but it's now been "closed for months."

Ste. Justine children's hospital used to offer gargle tests -- an appealing, easy option for kids -- but now says on its website it's only offering tests to patients and staff.

"It is much harder to get tested," the family said, describing trips across town.

The Centre-Ouest health district, which spans the west side of downtown through Cote-des-Neiges, NDG and Parc-Extension, says it's made some changes and is now reversing some of them.

"Last winter, we closed a small site in Outremont," said Centre-Ouest spokesperson Barry Morgan. "We decreased the hours of operation at our Parc-Extension site, but have since decided to increase the hours once again and return to our previous availability of seven days per week."

There has been no service reduction at the De la Montagne site, he said. And the district is always open to changing the schedule of a given clinic if needed.

"We modify our operating hours, adapting to the needs on our territory," he said.

The Centre-Sud health district recently opened three sites, but all are in Verdun, said Aubé. He couldn't say what happened to the De la Visitation option, which is no longer listed online as a test site, but said it's possible that test clinic was moved to a different location.

Overall, at least on paper, there hasn't been a reduction in test sites across Montreal, he said -- in fact, more have been added than taken away. In summer 2020, in Centre-Sud district, there were 16 test clinics, and right now there are 24.

In the province as a whole, according to data the ministry sent him, there were 125 test sites in summer 2020, and now there are 152.

MANY TESTS NOW BY APPOINTMENT ONLY

One problem appears to be that many more sites are offering tests by appointment only than was the case last winter and spring.

People don’t seem to be using the appointment system, instead preferring the walk-in sites.

“Many appointments are available right now via web,” said Aubé. “Part of the solution is to take an appointment.”

As to why people are being asked to book appointments now, he said “the offer evolves with the pandemic. It changes.”

The majority, according to the list the city provides, are now appointment-only, including the CLSCs in Saint-Henri, Ville-Émard and Ahuntsic, and at Notre-Dame Hospital.

Each health district manages its own testing system, said Aubé, and the city’s public health office overall doesn’t coordinate them.

LESS TESTING HAPPENING THAN LAST SPRING

Right now, new daily COVID-19 cases are roughly at the same level as they were last May, hovering between about 500 and 1,000 per day.

However, daily tests last May were much higher than they've been in the last week. The daily test count in that month was generally around 25,000 to 40,000 tests per day, permitting for weekend low points.

By comparison, this month so far the daily testing number has generally hovered just above 20,000, climbing higher midweek last week to over 28,000 before dropping back down to about 21,000 per day over the weekend.

The highly contagious Delta variant is responsible for the new spread of the virus, despite Quebec's relatively high vaccination level. Late last week, the province announced that 620 schools have had cases just in the two weeks since back-to-school began.

There are also "unprecedented" outbreaks of other viruses among children -- viruses that they normally would have caught at steadier levels over the last two years, but which they've now been exposed to all at once, as people have begun to spend more time together.

Many of those viruses' symptoms are similar to those of COVID-19, leading to extra demand for testing.

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