Ottawa

COVID-19 tests will 'spoil' if testing isn't sped up, doctor warns

The doctor given the task of fighting the first COVID-19 outbreak to close a school in Ontario says he's seeing tests go 'bad' due to delays in the province's testing regime.

Dr. Robert Cushman has already seen a handful of tests having to be retaken

Dr. Robert Cushman, acting medical director of health for the Renfrew County and District Health Unit, says he's seen COVID-19 tests go 'bad' due to processing delays. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

The doctor given the task of fighting the first COVID-19 outbreak to close a school in Ontario says he's seeing tests "spoil" due to delays in the province's testing regime.

Dr. Robert Cushman, the acting medical director of health for the Renfrew County and District Health Unit, said Friday that lab capacity has been so tight during the pandemic that at times, tests have gone "bad."

Cushman said he's seen about 10 tests that have had to be redone due to delays in processing.

"Sometimes these tests spoil if they can't be processed in 72 hours," he told CBC News, relaying information he'd been given from the testing lab.

Cushman is in charge of managing the recent outbreak at Fellowes High School in Pembroke, Ont. While tests involving people there are being expedited, he worries about future outbreaks because of how important timely testing is to contact tracing.

"We know this disease has an incubation period of [about] four days. So if you get a test back that took three days to process, and the person had the disease three days earlier, you're already at six days," he said. 

"In terms of the spread of the disease, you're really on the defensive."

Pharmacy tests almost ready, says province

Health officials have said there are staffing challenges facing both COVID-19 testing sites and laboratories, as hospitals begin addressing the surgery backlog created when operating rooms shut down at the start of the pandemic.

Cushman said he'd like to see two testing streams: one for people who've been exposed to COVID-19 and are symptomatic, and one for those who are there for peace of mind.

That could be the reality by late next week: on Friday, Ontario Premier Doug Ford said a plan to have pharmacists test people who are asymptomatic — and therefore divert them from the long lines at testing centres — is "ramping up."

Cushman said he hopes whatever is done to help is done quickly. 

"We've been at this six months at least, and we've made a few errors along the way. We haven't done a few things as quickly as we should," he said.

"But [proper testing] is something that we should have done a while ago and that we can fix if we really get on it. And we're going to need this as we go through the winter."

The widespread adoption of a self-administered saliva test like the one being rolled out in B.C. could also help speed things up, he added.

About the Author

Natalia is a multi-platform journalist in Ottawa. She has also worked for CBC in P.E.I. and Newfoundland and Labrador.

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