People who don't need a COVID-19 test clogging Ottawa's system

As health officials in Ottawa prepare to expand COVID-19 testing, they are urging people without symptoms or a referral to stop coming for a swab. 

Only people with symptoms or who have been referred should be tested for now

People wait in line for a COVID-19 test at Ottawa's Brewer Arena Sept. 15, 2020. It includes a line specifically for children age 14 and under. (Jean Delisle/CBC)

Health officials in Ottawa are urging people who don't have symptoms or have not been referred to stop clogging up its test sites.

There have been what they've described as record-breaking lines at testing centres recently as the city's positive tests surge to levels not seen since early May.

Officials say most people coming for testing don't need to be there, which is causing a backlog. 

"Most simply [get tested] if you have symptoms or you've been referred by public health," said Vera Etches, Ottawa's medical officer of health, in a news conference Tuesday. 

She said there is also confusion with back to school about how many people in a family unit should get tested.

"In the situation where somebody is referred by public health to be tested because they've been in close contact of a student or a teacher who has tested positive, it is only that close contact who needs to be tested, not the whole household."

Ottawa Public Health said last week the same advice stands for people with symptoms: only that person should go for a test.

The whole household does need to isolate if someone has symptoms until that symptomatic person tests negative or 14 days have passed.

Etches said they are not trying to exclude those without symptoms, but the value of them getting tested is relatively low and if testing gets overrun it will be harder to find capacity for those who do really need the test.

Dr. Alan Forster of the Ottawa Hospital, who leads the city's test strategy, said many people are coming in before attending a social event because they think that testing negative is a free pass.

"Testing asymptomatic people in the absence of some exposure is risky for the person. There's a chance of a false positive test," he said Tuesday 

"There often is a false sense of security, because if someone is asymptomatic, it doesn't mean that they won't become symptomatic later. They may be negative on the day they're tested and then then become positive a few days later."

Etches said a better way to put your mind at ease is to follow basic physical distancing rules and to tighten your bubble of close contacts to 10 people.

WATCH | Long lines again Tuesday at the Brewer Arena:

Residents frustrated with long lines at COVID-19 testing sites

2 years ago
Duration 0:38
People in Ottawa lined up at the city’s Brewer Arena assessment centre more than 90 minutes before it opened on Tuesday morning.

Currently, its testing centres can handle approximately 2,000 tests per day but health officials are hoping to soon get that to around 3,500.

They want to expand hours at all four test clinics, Forster said, with the Brewer Arena and RCGT Park sites becoming 12 hours a day, seven days a week by early next week. 

 A mobile testing unit is also being added which can be sent to schools if an outbreak occurs. Those in charge continue to look for opportunities to open more sites, all depending on staffing.


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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