Demand for COVID-19 testing in Hamilton has spiked 'massively'

A rise in the number of walk-ins has the lead for assessment centres in Hamilton asking residents to book an appointment before coming to get swabbed.

St. Joe's is opening a testing site at its West 5th Campus starting tonight

COVID-19 testing at Dave Andreychuk Mountain Arena will be replaced by a new site at the St. Joseph's Healthcare Hamilton site starting in mid-October. (City of Hamilton/Twitter)

Demand for COVID-19 testing in Hamilton has spiked "massively" in recent weeks, leading health officials to plead with the public not to show up at test centres to get swabbed without booking an appointment.

The city's assessment centres completed roughly 600-700 tests per day throughout August, according to Dr. Tamar Packer, but there's been a major jump in those statistics since September began.

"In the last week and a half is those numbers have escalated massively," she explained. "Yesterday we tested 922 across the three sites."

Fifty-four per cent of those people were walk-ins, said Packer, who is chief of family medicine at St. Joe's and Hamilton Health Sciences and the medical lead for testing centres in Hamilton.

"Folks are now just showing up," she said. 

"That's what's generating the lines to some extent. There's an issue with volume and capacity."

Forty-two people in Hamilton had COVID-19 as of Wednesday morning.

The city has seen a total of 1,045 probable and confirmed cases so far during the pandemic, of which 958 have recovered. Forty-five people have died.

The number of tests the city's facilities and labs can handle has grown during the pandemic, but the recent increase in requests for testing does raise concerns.

"If we grow with demand at the rate that we have, it does open up the possibility of will we be able to meet demand?" said Packer.

Hamilton isn't alone when it comes to people queuing for testing.

Health Minister Christine Elliott said Tuesday that the province has received reports of "significant lineups in many parts of Ontario."

Long lines for testing have been an issue in Toronto:

James Koziak arrived at the St. Joseph's Health Centre at 6:45 a.m for a test and still had to wait two hours. 0:35

A rise in demand was anticipated as kids return to school, but "perhaps not to this extent," acknowledged Elliott.

Packer said there's "anxiety" locally about kids coming back to class.

"What we can say is [testing] this week has been much less about illness than about concern," she explained. 

The doctor pointed out that Ontario's guidelines call for anyone with symptoms such as a runny nose or cough to get tested.

"With return to school … we know a good percentage of the kids will develop symptoms of a minor cold in the first few weeks," said Packer, adding if a child needs to be tested their parents and other family members would likely get swabbed too.

The province is now looking at ways to address this, she said, with the possibility of assessment facilities opening at pharmacies and labs.

New testing centre opening up

Local efforts are also underway to meet the demand.

St. Joseph's Healthcare Hamilton announced it will open up a small testing centre at its West 5th Campus starting this evening.

The centre will operate by appointment only in the early evening hours from Monday to Friday.

Packer said booking an appointment is crucial in order to ensure the city's healthcare system can manage the times when people arrive and ensure those who need testing the most get it as quickly as possible.

The assessment strategy in Hamilton was never intended to encourage walk-ins, she added.

But, as of Wednesday afternoon, the city's website seemed to contradict that statement by offering directions for those who arrived at the drive-thru testing centre at Dave Andreychuk Mountain Arena without an appointment.

The unintentional mixed messaging would be corrected, said Packer.

Dr. Tamar Packer is chief of family medicine at St. Joseph's Healthcare Hamitlon and Hamilton Health Sciences and the medical lead for assessment centre testing. (Supplied by St. Joseph's Healthcare Hamilton)

The doctor said she understands why people anxious about the virus might seek an assessment even without booking a test.

One of the bottlenecks some people are encountering is the availability of staff at the call centre operated by public health, which has also seen a huge leap in demand.

The centre fielded 500-700 calls each day last week, but received more than 1,700 yesterday, said Packer.

"We expect people get frustrated and figure 'I will just show up.'"

'Intense planning' about testing underway

Still, local health officials are asking people to follow the system and book their test in advance.

"Please avoid showing up without an appointment. It really creates multiple problems … there have been issues of rage and aggression, it's not safe for the employees, it's not safe for the people attending," said Packer.

"For the 500 people who did have an appointment yesterday their appointments become relatively meaningless because of the number of folks who are walking in."

St. Joe's says its newest assessment centre will eventually expand and take over for the drive-thru testing that's currently happening at the Dave Andreychuk Mountain Arena.

That service started up in April, but the hospital says it's set to close in mid-October.

Packer said the decision to close the drive-thru was made months ago because it would be difficult to operate during a Canadian winter.

"Intense planning" is now underway around expanding testing in the city, she noted, and more information is expected to be released in the coming weeks.

with files from CBC Toronto