Unanswered phone calls and faxes cause delays in giving people COVID-19 results

After a person is tested for COVID-19, labs post results online and fax back the results to local health units. Those faxed reports can be massive with multiple reports in them, says Dr. Nicola Mercer of Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph Public Health. Then, officials have to call individuals.

'People don't always answer when they see an unknown number,' Dr. Nicola Mercer says

Playgrounds in Guelph, and across the province, remain closed to curb the spread of COVID-19. Public health data shows more people are contracting the virus in Guelph from community spread than from outbreaks at long-term care or retirement homes. (Kate Bueckert/CBC)

People not answering their phones and massive reports sent by fax are part of the reason those who have had a COVID-19 test may see a delay in getting results.

Dr. Nicola Mercer is the medical officer of health and CEO of Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph Public Health. She says the system they use to get tests done and results back was not built for the volume of testing being done right now during the pandemic.

It takes about two days for people to get their test results, but sometimes it can take longer.

After a lab analyzes a sample from an assessment centre, there are two ways for a person to get those results: either they can check online or they wait for public health to call.

Public health finds out about lab results through fax.

"Then those faxes have to be retrieved. It's not actually an automated system. And if we had a really big testing day, let's just say we tested a thousand people which we have done in the month of May, if you get a thousand results all put together in a big fax, it takes a while to sort through that to make sure that there's no duplicates, which there often is," Mercer said.

Calling people who have been tested

Then, public health has to call the person who was tested.

"We have to get a hold of the person. Most of the time that's pretty easy. Most of the time people are at home, but sometimes they don't answer their phone," she said. "People don't always answer when they see an unknown number. So sometimes it does take a little while for us in public health to get a hold of people."

Mercer says people with positive test results and people living in long-term care homes, retirement homes or congregate settings are prioritized for receiving their results.

The assessment centres within the health unit have done more than 5,300 tests.

The centres have seen a surge in people wanting to be tested, particularly since Premier Doug Ford encouraged anyone with symptoms or who believes they may have been in contact with someone who has COVID-19 to get tested. Mercer says they're now looking at possible alternative testing sites, such as at the University of Guelph for students and staff.

Community spread

There are 394 positive cases of COVID-19 in the area covered by Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph Public Health and 35 people have died.

In Wellington County and Guelph, people are more likely to contract the virus from community spread rather than outbreak.

Mercer says that's actually good news.

"When it gets into our long term care homes, retirement homes or those settings, it is deadly and it goes through very quickly," she said. "We've put into place really good measures, so we're actually getting better. We've learned from our past mistakes our homes are more protected."

Mercer said with COVID-19 being a respiratory virus, it means most people are getting it by talking to someone who has the virus.

"A small number of people might get it from touching things when they're in a grocery store but most people get it from being around people," she said. "Community spread, it's out there. Take it seriously. But at the same time, please enjoy your outdoor activities."


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