Windsor company applies for testing lab capable of processing COVID-19 swabs

A privately owned company in Windsor is awaiting approval from the province on whether it can process COVID-19 swabs, according to the Windsor-Essex County Health Unit. 

New lab would be in addition to testing machine coming to Windsor Regional Hospital

A lab capable of processing COVID-19 tests may come to Windsor-Essex in the near future, according to the health unit. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

A privately-owned company in Windsor is awaiting approval from the province on if it can process COVID-19 swabs, according to the Windsor-Essex County Health Unit. 

The health unit declined to name the group, but CBC News has confirmed Medical Laboratories of Windsor is the company filing an application to process the tests, according to the group's vice-president of operations Jennifer Yee. At this time, Windsor's tests are processed in a London lab. 

"We'd like to be able to help and do the specimens from our area," Yee said. 

"So whatever that amount is, that is what we'd like to be able to assist with and get a platform in house that can do testing with same day or next day turnaround time with results, but basically prioritizing our community."

The company's application has the health unit's support, medical officer of health Dr. Wajid Ahmed confirmed Tuesday.

"We need that [testing capacity], especially as we move into the second wave ... a quick turnaround for the testing is needed," he said. 

Ahmed did not want to specify where the lab would be located, as ultimately the province will decide based on the application. 

"We're hoping it will happen sooner rather than later," Ahmed said. 

Windsor West MPP Lisa Gretzky told CBC News that she's been pushing the government to give the lab the green light for some time. 

"This is a clear case of them being able to sign off on something right away and make it so that within our region we're getting those results back in a timely manner rather than [residents] having to travel up the 401 and our testing getting put in the mix of other areas," Gretzky said. 

Former Huron Church lab could have tested for COVID-19

Windsor-Essex could have had a facility capable of processing COVID-19 tests, but health officials say the provincial laboratory capable of handling such testing was closed in 2010.

Located on Huron Church Road, the lab was one of 12 such facilities run by the Ontario government, and processed tests for diseases such as tuberculosis and West Nile. 

It was slated for closure in January 2010, formally closed in October that same year and was ultimately demolished to allow the construction of the Herb Gray Parkway.

The Windsor Public Health Lab was shuttered in October 2010. (CBC Windsor)

"The health unit was very vocal at the time because it does make a difference to us ... especially during COVID-19," said CEO and chief nursing officer Theresa Marentette, on Tuesday. 

"During regular times, we send a lot of samples to public health Ontario labs and right now we're sending them all to London and they move on to Toronto as well."

Those samples include the health unit's beach-testing monitoring as well as flu samples. 

Lagging result times, changes to testing criteria

A recent uptick in Ontario COVID-19 cases and increased public demand for tests has caused delays in results, prompting Ontario to change testing guidelines last week

The government said last week that low-risk, asymptomatic people can get appointment-only tests at up to 60 pharmacies but clarified last Thursday that the initiative would only apply to certain individuals, such as those with loved ones in long-term care homes or close contacts of a confirmed case.

That means people with no symptoms who are simply seeking reassurance they don't have the virus will not be able to access testing offered by the government.

Meanwhile, assessment centres will be reserved for people with symptoms — and several other specific instances.

WATCH | The health unit talks about importance of a local lab:

Dr. Ahmed warned that even if Windsor gets a lab, turnaround times may not improve due to the limited availability of testing materials.

"You have to be mindful that there are other things that need to be in place. It's not only about the ability to test, [but] ensuring they have the supplies for the swab. There's a system in place," said Ahmed. 

Earlier this month, Windsor Regional Hospital received government approval to buy a $200,000 machine to deliver COVID-19 test results in less than an hour.

"It's a big achievement for us to have the testing available locally for in-patients and eventually for the community," said Dr. Akram El-Keilani, chief of laboratory medicine at Windsor Regional Hospital, said at the time. 

The machine is called the GeneXpert. The Ministry of Health and Ontario Health have agreed to pay for operating costs, include testing cartridges which cost 70 dollars each.

The hospital expects to receive the machine in October but will only be able to run 200 tests per week due to the short supply of cartridges.


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