Health officials hope new test sites will ease COVID-19 lineups

The city of Ottawa is getting three new testing sites funded by the province to deal with the large numbers of people coming for tests overwhelming the assessment centres already in place.

One mobile facility will provide assistance at Brewer Arena site this weekend

One of two mobile testing sites earmarked for schools set up on Friday at Collège catholique Franco-Ouest. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

Health officials in Ottawa are optimistic the city's three new provincially funded COVID-19 test sites will help address the number of people overwhelming the existing assessment centres.

"The pandemic has put a major stress on our services," said the Ottawa Hospital's Dr. Alan Forster, who's responsible for how testing rolls out in the city as part of the Champlain COVID-19 Response Committee.

Two of the three sites, first announced Thursday by Progressive Conservative MPP Lisa MacLeod, will travel to schools depending on the need.

By Friday, they'd already been deployed to locations near De La Salle High School and Collège catholique Franco-Ouest, as part of contact tracing efforts related to a positive case at each school.

The third site, Forster said, will be moved among Ottawa's existing sites as necessary to expand capacity. This weekend it will be at the Brewer Arena testing site, where some people have been reporting three- to four-hour waits.

While the new facilities will be operated by a third party outside the purview of the response committee, Forster said his group will still handle their deployment.

Children and their parents line up outside the Brewer Arena test site on Tuesday. There have been reports of three- to four-hour wait times at the assessment centre. (Jean Delisle/CBC)

Medical staff crisis

Since the beginning of the school year, people seeking tests have endured long waits and have even been turned away because of the heavy demand.

The surge in testing is in part related to the requirement from daycares and schools that children with typical cold symptoms test negative for COVID-19.

There are also staffing issues at play.

Assessment centres initially benefited from the fact the pandemic put many surgeries and other hospital procedures on hold, Forster said, which allowed medical staff to be deployed to the test sites.

But now, with hospitals finally tackling that surgery backlog, those health-care workers are needed again in their regular jobs, Forster said.

Even so, the city's assessment centres are planning to expand their hours, Forster said — but it will be "a large drain on our resource pool."

CHEO, eastern Ontario's children's hospital, is trying to hire more staff for the Brewer Arena assessment centre, said hospital CEO Alex Munter.

Munter said on social media Thursday that the centre was able to quickly open in March because the pandemic forced operating rooms and clinics to shut down, allowing staff to be reassigned.

Accessing more provincial help

On Friday, Ottawa's medical officer of health, Dr. Vera Etches, met with Premier Doug Ford to discuss how the province could help.

"What they're trying to do is get more people," said Etches. "Ontario Health East is looking at drawing in paramedics from neighbouring areas. Our own paramedics are answering the call."

A student at Collège catholique Franco-Ouest waits for a COVID-19 test on Friday at one of Ottawa's new provincially funded testing centres. (Francis Ferland (CBC))

Etches said they're also looking to see whether they can deploy "primary care providers" who work at community health centres to test centres to ease the staffing shortages.

"It's really about increasing the number of people that can take this on. I know it's been terrible in the lineups. We're looking at how [to] manage the lineups better."

Forster also said the online booking system currently used at the drive-thru site on Coventry Road will be expanded to other locations as well.

Testing results are also being slowed down by similar human resources challenges at the labs, he added, as well as because of a global shortage of certain equipment and materials.

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