How testing for COVID-19 works in Quebec, and are we doing enough?

Here are some key questions (and answers) to what experts say is a crucial part of containing COVID-19.

Testing is seen as a crucial part of containing COVID-19. Here's a look at the province's approach

The shuttered ER of the Hôtel-Dieu Hospital in Montreal is among the testing sites for COVID-19. (François Sauvé/Radio-Canada)

The World Health Organization issued a plea to countries across the globe this week: "Test, test, test."

Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director general of the WHO, said doing so is crucial to containing COVID-19. 

"You must test and isolate. You cannot fight a fire blindfolded and we cannot stop this pandemic if we don't know who is infected. We have a simple message for all countries:: Test test test. Test every suspected case."

Quebec's public health director, Horacio Arruda, used that same language in a news conference of his own, saying, "We will test, test, test."

But is Quebec doing enough testing? Here are some key questions (and answers) to what experts say is a crucial part of containing COVID-19.

How many tests are being done?

As of Wednesday, there were at least 25 testing clinics operating across the province and six more are on the way by the end of the week, according to Quebec's Health Ministry.

Premier François Legault said the province is now carrying out 3,000 tests a day, with plans to increase capacity to 5,000.

But Quebec has struggled to process the tests and is not churning out results in a matter of hours, like some places. 

Up until recently, tests were being sent to the province's public laboratory in Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue. 

Now, seven other medical centres and hospitals will be able to analyze results as well. 

The province lags behind neighbouring Ontario, where as of Wednesday 13,897 people had been approved for testing. Quebec, by comparison, had tested 8,934.

Premier François Legault said the province is now carrying out 3,000 tests a day, with plans to increase capacity to 5,000. (Graham Hughes/Canadian Press)

Who gets tested?

For now, Quebec is testing people who:

  • Are arriving from travel with symptoms.
  • Have been in close contact with travellers who have symptoms.
  • Have been in close contact with confirmed coronavirus cases.
  • Hospital patients with symptoms that resemble COVID-19.

Marie-Claude Lacasse, a spokesperson for the province's Health Ministry, said Wednesday that the testing protocol could change going forward, to include anyone in the community.

"Depending on how the situation evolves, the policy could be expanded to include screening for anyone with symptoms," she said in an email.

"However, at this stage, efforts are concentrated on travellers and their contacts."

The Quebec government says anyone with symptoms should call 1-877-644-4545. If necessary, you will be instructed to go to one of the province's COVID-19 testing clinics.

Where are the clinics?

A Health Ministry spokesperson said local health authorities are deciding where these testing clinics are being set up and how they will be run.

Health authorities, including in the Quebec City region, are setting up drive-thru clinics that allow people to get tested without leaving their vehicle. 

At least three drive-thru COVID-19 screening clinics opened this week and others are on the way.

Health authorities are adding drive-through testing sites to a number of regions throughout the province. (Guylaine Bussière/Radio-Canada)

Why is testing important?

Jorg Fritz, an associate professor of microbiology and immunology at McGill University, said it's crucial Quebec ramp up testing immediately, stressing it's "the only way out of this crisis."

He said the wait time for results is too long. Fritz said people without severe symptoms could be unknowingly spreading the virus.

"Until now, we thought that travel is the way to restrict the spread of the virus. This makes sense," he told CBC Montreal's Daybreak

"But now the virus is in our community and with the closing of the border we will have some more Canadians coming back to the country that have been most likely exposed. The testing is so important because it's not only the people who are clearly infected and have the disease who are spreading the virus."

How does Quebec compare to other jurisdictions?

South Korea is viewed as a model for what successful testing can do. 

Tina Park, executive director of the Canadian Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, said recently the South Korean government's collaboration with labs to provide access to testing and early diagnosis has been a leading factor in the country's success in reducing the spread of COVID-19.

"The diagnosis system in South Korea was so advanced that people were just being tested more," she told CBC News.

She said South Koreans have very easy access to testing centres, she said.

They are notified of the results within six hours with about 98 per cent accuracy.

Medical staff members arrive for a duty shift at Dongsan Hospital in Daegu, South Korea. Fewer people are testing positive for COVID-19 in South Korea. (Lee Moo-ryul/The Associated Press)

"Once they are diagnosed, they are either notified on their phone or treated immediately," said Park, a Canadian who has lived in both Canada and South Korea.

Canada is conducting about one-fifth as many tests per capita as what has been carried out in South Korea, Canadian respirologist Dr. Samir Gupta told CBC News on Wednesday.

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