Thunder Bay

Quick turnaround on COVID-19 tests key for safe school year

Access to COVID-19 testing and fast turnaround times for test results are top of mind for public health officials in the Thunder Bay district as the school year approaches.

Thunder Bay's COVID-19 assessment centre moving to permanent location in anticipation of fall testing spike

The Thunder Bay Regional Health Sciences Centre's COVID-19 assessment centre is moving to a more-permanent location in anticipation of a spike in testing in the fall. (Thunder Bay Regional Health Sciences Centre)

Access to COVID-19 testing and fast turnaround times for test results are top of mind for public health officials in the Thunder Bay district as the school year approaches.

Dr. Janet DeMille, medical officer of health at the Thunder Bay District Health Unit (TBDHU), said testing, along with the implementation of health and safety measures introduced by the province, will be a key part of keeping schools safe this year.

"One of the ways we manage this pandemic of course, importantly, is the testing. And people you know, need to have quick access to testing when ... they have symptoms or when they've been exposed, for example, but we also need to get that ... that test result back very quickly," she said in an interview with CBC Thunder Bay.

DeMille said communities in the TBDHU service area have been experiencing "issues or challenges" when it comes to COVID-19 testing turnaround times, but added work is being done both regionally and provincially to address those concerns.

"I'm not directly involved in that but we do kind of watch that turnaround time, and I really do hope to see that improve. Certainly for communities like Marathon, fairly shortly because it does have a ripple effect," she said.

Fast turnaround times for test results allow health officials to follow up with any potential positive COVID-19 patients, limiting the chance of any further exposure or spread.

DeMille said this practice will be "fundamentally important" as children head back to school, however, health units and school boards are still waiting for more "detailed guidance" from the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Education.

In terms of testing capacity in Thunder Bay, Andrea Docherty, who's overseeing the COVID-19 assessment centre at the Thunder Bay Regional Health Sciences Centre, said about 100 tests can be done a day.

However, in the event of a community outbreak, the centre can "surge" and do 150 daily if needed; the occasional drive-thru testing events, meanwhile, can also handle about 150 tests a day.

"We've only had, really, a couple of surges," she said. "Our community's done very, very well in our response to COVID-19."

The demand for testing has remained steady since March, and turnaround times have dropped from 7-10 days down to two to three days.

Initially, Docherty said, test samples had to be sent to Toronto for analysis. Now, however, they're being analyzed in Thunder Bay, which means results are available much more quickly.

And changes are being made to prepare for the reopening of schools in the fall.

The assessment centre is moving from a trailer in the parking lot of the hospital's emergency department to a permanent location on the first floor of the medical building next to the hospital itself.

"Where we're at right now is a challenge for accessibility for folks," Docherty said. "It's at the top of a hill, and we're in a construction trailer, so the space is really limited. We can't really expand."

Docherty said health officials anticipate a spike in testing in the fall, partly due to flu season.

School opening details still needed

DeMille said more information is still needed when it comes to certain aspects of school restarting, such as a plan for when "there is COVID in the school."

"We'll need to have ... those details in order to implement some of the measures, especially those as it relates to ... what are we going to do with individuals who may have symptoms that could be COVID and of course, you know, the parameters around who needs to be tested," she said.

DeMille said much of the guidance from the province will be similar to what is already implemented in settings such as workplaces, or reopened businesses. She said, however, details of assessing children with symptoms is one area that still needs attention.

"How do you assess children who may have various little symptoms most of the time, and who may have mild, sort of, COVID?" she said.

"This is one area where we're really looking for the experts in pediatrics and infectious diseases to kind of be the guidance on it and making sure that it's sort of a consistent approach across the province."

DeMille said within the district, a team of public health professionals will be working on keeping schools healthy, adding public health inspectors and infectious disease specialists who also worked to support the reopening of businesses will be among the team.