Calls grow for easier access to COVID-19 testing

Councillors across Ottawa are calling for an expansion of the city's COVID-19 testing system to provide easier access to residents.

Locations of testing sites, long lines and even parking issues present barriers to people getting tested

Councillors from across the city called for better access to COVID-19 testing at Wednesday's council meeting. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

Alison Buchanan, worried she might have COVID-19, wanted to get a coronavirus test before sending her young daughter back to school.

Buchanan, who also takes care of her mother, wanted some peace of mind.

She drove to the COVID-19 clinic on Moodie Drive in Nepean Tuesday around noon and arrived to find the parking lot full. Signs warned of a minimum two-hour wait time.

She decided to park on the side of the road where several other cars were parked.

"When I got out of my car, I saw a bylaw officer busy ticketing cars along the verge," said Buchanan, who works in government relations in Ottawa.

"There was clearly nowhere that I could park that would not get me a ticket that was in a reasonable walking distance of the testing centre."

Buchanan decided to forego the test because she didn't have symptoms at the time and had to get on with her day.

Downtown councillors wrote in a letter to the CEO of The Ottawa Hospital that the opening of a new drive-thru COVID-19 test site at RCGT Park east of downtown doesn't help people without cars access testing. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

Her experience is just one example of a barrier Ottawa residents face when it comes to getting tested for COVID-19 that could be preventing some from getting tested. Others include long wait times, having to travel long distances to a small number of testing centres and not having access to transit.

An average of 1,402 people were swabbed at one of four public testing centres over the past seven days, according to data from The Ottawa Hospital, which administers the COVID-19 assessment centre at Brewer Arena and a new drive-thru centre in the parking lot of the Raymond Chabot Grant Thornton Park (RCGT) baseball stadium in Overbrook.

That number doesn't include tests done by a mobile testing van operated by Inner City Health that mostly serves people experiencing homelessness or tests done in hospitals.

Councillors call for improved access

At Wednesday's council meeting, elected officials from across the city called for an expansion of the city's testing system to better meet demand.

"It's a good effort, but not enough mobile outreach and not enough sensitivities to those who do not have access to a car," said Rideau-Vanier Coun. Mathieu Fleury in an interview with CBC.

"Part of our future success will depend on our ability to test, to test rapidly and to remove barriers to access to testing."

Fleury, along with four other downtown councillors, sent a letter to the CEO of The Ottawa Hospital last month asking for walk-in testing centre in the city's urban centre.

The letter pointed out that none of the existing testing centres are within walking distance for residents in their wards.

"This situation has sharply restricted many potentially ill people from being tested and may be contributing to further contagion," the letter said. "Within urban neighbourhoods, car ownership is considered unnecessary and often unreachably expensive. The expectation that people must own a car to be tested is unreasonable and creates a bias in the testing results."

But it's not just urban councillors who want to see easier access to testing. 

West Carleton-March Coun. Eli El-Chantiry said Ottawa's testing strategy needs to take into account the particular needs of rural residents. 

El-Chantiry wants to see a mobile testing unit similar to that in Renfrew County, where paramedics travel to different locations two to three times a week and conduct testing.

"They're bringing their mobile units to where the people are so people don't have to drive an hour and wait on the line a few hours to get tested," said El-Chantiry.

We ask councillors Catherine McKenney and Eli El-Chantiry what their concerns are around access to testing in the city's urban and rural regions. NaN:NaN

Medical officer of health Dr. Vera Etches told councillors that people without access to cars or transit can get a referral for mobile testing through their healthcare provider.

"We know there is more needed and there are plans underway to add capacity," said Etches. 

Etches reminded councillors that the provincial agency Ontario Health is responsible for developing the testing strategy for eastern Ontario, while the Champlain COVID-19 Response Committee, which includes hospitals, administers it on the ground in Ottawa.

"Ottawa Public Health's role is to describe what is needed and our partners are working to implement this," said Etches.

Ontario Health said in a statement Friday it's developing a plan for mobile testing at the scene of outbreaks and other hot spots, and is working with partners to make sure people with fewer resources have options.

The provincial agency said it's analyzing results from the newest site to make sure the city's testing needs are met.

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