Eastern Ontario labs ramp up to help with COVID-19 test backlog

You may have never heard of EORLA, but if you've ever had a test in one of the region's hospitals, the lab handled it. It's now poised to help process the backlog of COVID-19 tests.

Hospital-affiliated lab network readying more efficient test

Every day, hundreds of people are being swabbed for COVID-19, but the test results are taking days. (Nova Scotia Health Authority)

In the face of lengthy response times for people waiting for results of their COVID-19 tests, laboratories affiliated with local hospitals have put in long, intense days to begin helping process the tests as early as Monday.

Across Ontario, there were more than 8,300 COVID-19 nasal swabs waiting to be tested as of early Monday morning.

Although CBC could not confirm how many Ottawa cases are in the backlog, it has heard from some people who say they are waiting as many as seven days for results, as opposed to the three or four days that public health officials projected.

But help for eastern Ontario may be on the way from what's known as the Eastern Ontario Regional Laboratory Association (EORLA).

The network was formed back in 2012, when 16 hospitals in the eastern part of the province amalgamated their laboratory services.

All lab testing and processing for both in- and out-patients of the region's hospitals is provided by EORLA at 19 sites, with its CHEO lab taking on virus assessment for children and adults alike as its specialty — a natural role for a hospital that deals with frequent viral infections in children.

"These tests are very complicated and they're highly technical," said Dr. Marc Desjardins, head of microbiology at EORLA.

"That's one of the reasons why only a few labs across the province can do this test."

Hospital labs have greater testing capacity

Currently, COVID-19 tests are all being processed at one of 11 provincial public health labs, including locations in Ottawa and Kingston.

Once given the go-ahead by the province, EORLA will begin by taking over all COVID-19 testing performed in area hospitals so that those cases don't have to be sent to those public health labs.

The EORLA lab located at CHEO, which specializes in testing for viral infections, will handle all COVID-19 tests performed at area hospitals, and may be able to take on more testing to alleviate the pressure on the public health network. (CBC)

And depending on various factors — the volume of COVID-19 testing in hospitals, the number of test requests for other serious ailments — EORLA could take up more tests to take further pressure off the public health lab system.

Its laboratory will need some time to ramp up its processing capacity and officials are reluctant to estimate how many tests could be analyzed, considering the swiftly changing events surrounding the pandemic.

Normally, Public Health Ontario processes 5.5 million tests of all sorts every year for the entire province.

EORLA alone handles more than 13 million tests a year for its 16 hospitals.

Can confirm testing 'fairly quickly'

The novel coronavirus arrived on the scene only about three months ago "so there are variations in these tests all over the place," Desjardins says.

Public health labs are currently using a process that involves two layers of testing for those that come back positive the first time around, but EORLA is using a different procedure that can look at three different genetic sequences in a single test.

These kinds of studies typically take three months. We did it in a week and a half."- Dr. Marc Desjardins, EORLA

"We can arrive at confirming that test fairly quickly in just one reaction," Desjardins told CBC.

There was a snag in being able to offer these testing services: EORLA lacked enough COVID-19 specimens to do the preliminary work needed to verify that its process was accurate.

"We got our license to do the testing about two-and-a-half weeks ago and we got our positive test material at the beginning of last week," said Desjardins.

"To be very honest, these kinds of studies typically take three months. We did it in a week and a half."

Health care workers at the COVID-19 assessment centre at Brewer Park arena, shown here on March 13, are testing hundreds of people each day. Ontario's public health labs currently have a backlog of more than 8,300 tests. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

EORLA conducted dozens of sample tests in recent days and sent their results to the provincial public health laboratories to have its results confirmed, which would mean it could start its testing.

"I'm extremely proud of the hard work and dedication of the staff that we have here," Desjardins told CBC.

"Some of our staff have been working 14 days straight to get this up and running."

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