The demand for COVID-19 testing in Hamilton has surged as schools have reopened and neighbouring municipalities see the number of new cases rising at a surprising rate.
While Hamilton’s rate of new cases remains low, it’s become apparent that in order to keep it that way, our local health-care providers will need to address the current delays in accessing testing.
The introduction of a fourth assessment centre at St. Joseph’s Healthcare Hamilton’s (SJHH) West 5th Campus earlier this month is intended to help alleviate some of the pressure on the local testing bottleneck but is also intended to replace Hamilton’s drive-thru assessment centre at the Mountain Arena which will be closing in mid-October.
Earlier this week, PHS started urging residents to make appointments for testing as the surge in demand is seeing people lined up for hours outside testing facilities and reports of residents being turned away and told to make appointments.
The public health line residents were told to call to book appointments, however, was quickly overwhelmed, with staff receiving, at its highest peak, 3,000 calls in one day.
On Thursday (Sept. 24), the City launched an online booking system to access testing in an effort to improve access and reduce the number of people waiting in huge lines.
Despite the launch, access to testing and the wait for results is still a days-long process.
What’s being done?
Dr. Nihn Tran, an associate medical officer of health with Hamilton’s Public Health Services (PHS), met with members of the city’s General Issues Committee on Wednesday (Sept 23) to answer questions in relation to Hamilton’s COVID-19 response.
Ward 9 councillor Brad Clark was particularly interested in finding out how our local public health unit is ramping up testing.
Clark sited correspondence from a constituent who has been self-isolating at home while they wait for a test. The constituent says they waited days to make an appointment and after the appointment was booked it was another days-long wait for the appointment and results.
“It seems problematic that in the middle of a pandemic we can’t get the testing done that is required to ensure that residents are safe to return to work and their families,” he said. “Who is accountable?”
While Tran didn’t exactly assign any blame for the hold-up, he noted that under the current provincial mandates, virtually anyone can get tested.
He explained that people who are not symptomatic and have no known exposure to the virus are seeking out tests “for a variety of reasons like peace of mind…or they’ve travelled.”
When the province adjusts testing requirements, Tran said, that may free up some resources.
On Thursday, the Province did just that and under the new guidelines, people experiencing symptoms of COVID-19, people who have come into contact with a confirmed case and people who work or live in a setting where an outbreak of the virus has been declared have been prioritized for testing.
“We recognize how this is impacting residents,” Tran said, noting that they have been increasing the number of swabs collected steadily.
InTheHammer reached out to PHS to seek quantification of this claim but they were unable to provide concrete numbers.
“These numbers are not available, but we have seen increases in test bookings,” a spokesperson said in an emailed response.
According to data posted on the City’s COVID-19 website, to date, local assessment centres have have completed 71,119 COVID-19.
Also on Thursday, the province announced that it would be investing $1 billion to expand testing and tracing throughout Ontario. It’s not yet clear how those funds will be allocated, but Hamilton is likely to benefit to some degree.
At Wednesday’s meeting, Mayor Fred Eisenberger also spoke on the state of Hamilton’s COVID testing capacity and siting, what he says, is good news on that front.
He hailed the province’s announcement that some 60 pharmacies across Ontario will be offering testing to asymptomatic individuals as “positive news.”
“Adding them to what’s already happening is very beneficial,” he said.
None of the 60 pharmacies, however, is actually in Hamilton.
“The provincial government is rolling out the program to designated ‘hot spots’ first, and will be continuing to expand the program as they see fit,” PHS told InTheHammer.
“This is a provincial run program, and they will determine the locations and timelines.”
At the local level, health-care providers and organizations are working together to deliver testing as quickly as possible.
“The partnership of SJHH, HHS (Hamilton Health Sciences), Hamilton Paramedic Services and Good Shephard are working together to expand testing centres and testing capacity,” the PHS spokesperson said.
“[We are] ensuring that residents understand prioritization of appointments that has recently been updated by the Provincial government.”
An HHS spokesperson also weighed in on ramping up testing capabilities.
“Our staff are working hard to meet this need in our community and we are grateful for their efforts,” they said.
As recent history has shown, testing capacity is key to keeping things up and running and avoiding a possible second lockdown.
Eisenberger said that in discussions with local businesses and organization, the fear of another lockdown is top of mind.
“Some of them have told me they cannot survive another shutdown,” he said. “It would be the worst possible scenario.”
— with a photo from The Canadian Press