Hamilton cancer survivor among 11K Ontarians anxiously awaiting COVID-19 test results

Regina Henry, 63, was tested for COVID-19 Saturday and has been waiting to find out if she's carrying the new coronavirus ever since. She's one of thousands in the province stuck in the same situation.

'My jaw is locked so I know I'm really anxious about it,' says Regina Henry

Regina Henry and her toy poodle Pearl took this photo at famous the Trevi Fountain in Rome before they returned home to Hamilton where the 63-year-old was tested for COVID-19. She's still waiting for her test results five days later. (Submitted by Regina Henry)

Every time the phone rings and an unknown number shows up, Regina Henry feels her heart beat a little faster.

But for the past five days she's been disappointed.

The 63-year-old Hamilton cancer survivor was tested for COVID-19 Saturday and has been waiting ever since to find out if she's carrying the new coronavirus.

Staff at the assessment centre initially told her she should hear back in four or five days. On Thursday, Hamilton's Public Health website stated it may take up to seven days for someone to get their results — thanking people for their patience.

"I try and keep my mind off it as much as possible, but then I find my jaw is locked so I know I'm really anxious about it," said Henry.

She's not alone. The  Ontario list of people waiting to find out if they have COVID-19 stretched to nearly 11,000 Thursday.

It's a problem the province has promised to address.

Ontario hopes to be "making a dent in the backlog by early next week," said Vanessa Allen, chief of medical microbiology at the Public Health Ontario laboratory, during a briefing with reporters on Thursday.

Health Minister Christine Elliott has also described the delay as "not acceptable."

The province aims to ramp up its testing rate by 3,000-4,000 tests each week, with the goal of hitting nearly 19,000 tests by April 17, according to officials.

Hamilton's two assessment centres have carried out 761 COVID-19 tests since they opened on March 16. There were 43 confirmed cases in Hamilton as of Thursday, including one death.

Dr. Bart Harvey, the city's associate medical officer of health, said he's "very empathetic" with those caught in limbo, adding labs are working hard to catch up and turn results around more quickly.

"One of the good things is, I hear news that the regional lab in London looks like it's ready to come online so that will take some of the pressure off our Hamilton regional lab because we're currently covering that zone as well," he said during a media update Thursday.

'Life is short. Death is long'

But Henry is still waiting.

With her metaplastic breast cancer in remission, she decided to spend the winter somewhere warm and settled on Sicily.

"I really wasn't supposed to make it. So my motto is 'Life is short. Death is long. So, screw it. Just do it,'" she explained.

In early March her getaway with her toy poodle Pearl suddenly took a turn when the situation in Italy seemed to become deadly serious almost overnight.

Henry didn't have any symptoms, but decided to head home while she still could.

She had a hard time finding a flight that would also take her dog and ended up flying into Paris where she was stuck for another week before finally making her way to Montreal on March 13.

When she landed she was questioned and given a face mask before leaving the airport.

Henry and Pearl also visited the Louvre in Paris, which was empty of its usual tourists. (Submitted by Regina Henry)

The risk of blood clots kept her from boarding another plane, but she intentionally booked a business-class train ride back to Hamilton to stay as far away from others as possible. Her mask also stayed on.

Four days later, Henry started to suffer a cough, sore throat, runny nose and a "massive headache."

Public health officials had followed up with a phone call after she landed and convinced her to go get tested on March 21.

"I'm definitely at high risk," said Henry. "My white cell count never goes above a very low normal ... and I have scarring to my lungs, so any problem with your lungs creates a severe risk."

She ended up calling DARTS, which sent a special van and driver that was "all hazmat-suited up" for the ride to the assessment centre.

Henry praised the nurses working at the centre, saying they were careful to keep people separated and continuously wiped down surfaces.

Her test was quick — over in "literally half a second."

"They stick a swab up your nose halfway to your brain. It's very far back. But after you've been through the treatments I've been through, it's nothing."

Then she headed home with nothing left to do but wait.

Wait for results before leaving isolation, says health unit

She's tried to pass the hours reading, but finds it hard to concentrate. Sleep doesn't come easily amid the anxiety around hearing back.

"Really I'm just trying to get through the day. My response sometimes is 'Oh s--t I'll just get drunk and the day will pass," Henry joked with a laugh "But that's not a good thing to do if you possibly have a virus so that one was out."

One thing that has kept Henry busy is sending emails to politicians asking them to address the long wait for results and suggesting university labs should be used to speed up the process.

Over the past few days her symptoms have mostly cleared up and she never did develop a fever.

But Harvey said regardless of how someone is feeling they shouldn't break isolation until they hear back.

"Even if they're feeling better now, the fact they were feeling ill enough recently to be tested to COVID-19 I would really stress to them that it is very important that they remain in self-isolation until we get that test result."

While she continues to nervously wait for the phone to ring with her result, Henry said she's not sure how much of a difference it will make.

"If negative, will stay in same isolation because I'm at risk. And if it's positive, I've had it for over a week now and without getting significantly worse. So I'm hoping that means I won't."

with files from Mike Crawley