More COVID-19 testing capacity coming to Waterloo region as demand remains high

Grand River Hospital has purchased two new machines to help process COVID-19 tests locally, rather than send them to provincial labs. It's expected this will cut down the amount of time people wait for test results, which can take between two to six days or longer currently.

Local testing centres planning for fall, when influenza and common cold could cause confusion

Demand for COVID-19 testing in Waterloo region remains high, the local assessment centres say. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Grand River Hospital has purchased two new machines to increase local COVID-19 testing capacity as demand for testing remains high.

Right now the hospital can analyze about 66 test samples a day, which tends to be healthcare workers and patients in the hospital.

The new machines will process 92 tests at a time, or about 1,500 tests a day, said Cheryl Evans, the hospital's manager of communication. 

One machine is already on site and the hope is to have people trained to use and have it up and running in August. The other machine is expected to arrive next month.

The machines, which have a use beyond COVID-19 and can be used for influenza and other viruses, should mean people get their results within 48 hours because the tests won't need to be sent to provincial labs, Evans said. That will also help start the process of contact tracing more quickly.

More asymptomatic people seek testing

Dr. Joe Lee at the Westmount Place Walk-in Clinic says "we were hoping for a bit more of a lull" when it comes to testing in the region over the summer months.

But he also said he's not surprised demand remains high.

"It's very hard to be surprised these days with almost anything. It's been such a rollercoaster," he said with a laugh.

The number of people with symptoms seeking a COVID-19 test decrease slightly, but the number of asymptomatic people wanting to be tested has gone up, Lee says.

People are citing various reasons, he says. Some say they need the test so they can visit a family member in a long-term care or retirement home, because there's a newborn they'd like to interact with, or simply that people are socializing more and they are concerned. Some people are also confusing allergies for symptoms.

He said he's heard the turnaround for test results can take between two and six days.

"I can take a longer time than ideal," he said.

'Strong demand for testing'

More than a third of all COVID-19 testing in Waterloo region has been conducted over the past month.

As of Friday, the Region of Waterloo Public Health COVID-19 dashboard reported 47,607 tests have been done since March. On June 23, the region reported it had done 30,516. Of that, more than half — 15,809 tests — were done between May 22 and June 23.

Dr. Hsiu-Li Wang, the region's acting medical officer of health, says there continues to be "a strong demand for testing" in Waterloo region "which is a good sign."

"I'm pleased … people are continuing to seek testing. That's important," Wang said on Tuesday during a regular COVID-19 media briefing. 

She said the trends in results are also positive.

"Our percentage of tests that have come back positive over the number of tests that have been performed has continued to go down, which is a good indicator," Wang said.

Grand River Hospital has set up a drive-thru testing center in an underused parking lot at 137 Glasgow St. in Kitchener. One day in the past week, a record 515 tests were done at the site. (Jackie Sharkey/CBC)

Drive-thru site hits 515 tests in 1 day

Wang says the region's testing partners — the three area hospitals and the Westmount Walk-In Clinic — are doing a good job of responding to the increase in demand. She says in particular, there's been a significant increase in testing since Grand River Hospital set up a drive-thru assessment centre at the Catalyst 137 parking lot in Kitchener. 

Most days, the drive-thru does between 400 and 500 tests. One day this past week, staff did a record 515 tests, Evans said.

Wang says the volume of testing has increased provincially over the last month. During that time, the lab system has expanded and been strengthened, but there are still challenges.

"We've never tested at these volumes before in the province and so this is something that's going to continue to require some tweaks as we go forward to get to a smoother state," she said.

Call for patience

Wang says she's asking people who are waiting for appointments or results to be patient.

"We understand that everyone would like to get an appointment faster, to get their results a little faster, but across the province there has been this significant increase in the number of tests that have been performed and that's always going to lead to some degree of increased delay in the shorter term while partners try to respond to the increased demand," she said.

In an email, the Ministry of Health told CBC Kitchener-Waterloo that between 70 and 80 per cent of people receive test results within two days. The media relations team did not address a question about what the province is doing to increase capacity to do more testing at provincial labs.

Lee says there are ongoing discussions among the testing partners to plan for this fall. He says with influenza season on the horizon, and people more likely to catch the common cold, it will be a confusing time.

"A lot of strategizing has to be done with regards to the roll out of flu shots and with regards to, where are all the assessments going to be done and how are we going to do it," he said.


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