Coronavirus: With new capacity ready, Ottawa task force urging residents to get tested

Ottawa’s COVID-19 testing task force is pushing for more residents to get tested for the novel coronavirus as freshly scaled-up lab and assessment centre capacity sits ready for higher demand.

Many indicators in Ottawa suggest the city is bucking the province-wide trends of rising coronavirus infection rates as of late.

Dr. Vera Etches, Ottawa’s medical officer of health, said Tuesday the city is seeing a “slow decline” in the level of virus in the community, with indicators such as hospitalizations and new outbreaks stabilizing.

But while the local percent positivity continues to drop — down to 2.2 per cent as of Wednesday — the volume of coronavirus testing in Ottawa is also down across all sites, according to the task force in charge of the city’s COVID-19 testing strategy.

Tuesday’s update from Ottawa’s COVID-19 Testing Task Force showed 1,792 swabs were taken at local assessment centres the day before and 1,387 tests were performed at local labs. Wednesday’s update showed a jump in the number of tests processed with 3,684 tests performed.

The marked improvement still falls well short of the region’s capacity to process more than 6,000 tests per day. The task force originally referred to this metric as the “target number” of tests to be performed per day, but has shifted the language to refer to the daily capacity.

The task force told Global News in an email statement this week the shift was made to “more accurately” reflect what the number represents.

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“That number does not in fact refer to the number of tests that we are targeting to reach, but instead more accurately reflects the current capacity available should it be needed. If the demand for testing grows and starts to come closer to reaching or exceeding the current lab capacity, plans are in place to be able to quickly expand further,” the statement read.

A lack of testing capacity made headlines in Ottawa at the end of the summer, when hours-long lineups outside local assessment centres presented significant barriers for residents to get tested and drove up the city’s backlog of unprocessed tests. Similar situations unfolded in other major urban centres across Ontario.

The situation is very different today, for a number of reasons.

Provincial policies on who should get tested shifted to focus on symptomatic residents, screening efforts were relaxed to discourage children from getting tested if they were only exhibiting one symptom such as a runny nose, pharmacies began offering tests for asymptomatic residents and assessment centres shifted to an appointment-based booking model.

The local task force’s partners, which include Ottawa Public Health and area hospitals, ramped up operations at local testing centres and labs rushed to add more staff and equipment to process more tests.

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Dr. Brent Moloughney, Ottawa’s associate medical officer of health, spoke Wednesday alongside Mayor Jim Watson at a preview of the city’s new drive-thru testing facility at the National Arts Centre’s parking garage. He said there is “ample testing capacity” in Ottawa now compared to the situation in September.

Watson added that the federal government is expected to offer resources from its Fallowfield labs to further bolster the city’s testing capacity.

But now that the capacity is there, the problem has changed — residents aren’t showing up to get tested and the task force isn’t sure why.

The rise of alternative options, such as getting tested in pharmacies and in some workplaces, could see people bypass the regional system.

There could also be a holdover in public perception from September and a general belief that getting tested still requires standing outdoors for hours, rather than the newly streamlined processes.

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The task force also said there could be other socioeconomic and geographic barriers to testing.

Etches said during a call with reporters on Tuesday that local health officials have learned that it’s not enough to just set up a pop-up testing site in a neighbourhood and expect people to present for testing.

Targeted strategies require a holistic approach, she said, where health officials work with members of the community to help residents understand the reasons for testing and reducing the stigma associated with getting tested for COVID-19.

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The task force is also setting up two new downtown assessment centres in the days ahead, including the new site at the NAC.

Opening on Thursday, that site will replace the current drive-thru assessment centre on Coventry Road. The below-ground parking garage will be better insulated from Ottawa’s harsh winter weather.

The other new site will see testing start at the McNabb Community Centre on Percy Street, a more centrally located site that’s more walkable for downtown residents.

The COVID-19 testing task force has also launched a social media campaign encouraging residents to get tested and are reaching out to community leaders to help push the message.

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The task force encourages anyone meeting the criteria below to book an appointment for a coronavirus test. Appointments can be booked by phone for residents without reliable internet access, and walk-ins to assessment centres, while not encouraged, will not be turned away.

You should book a coronavirus test if:

  • you have COVID-19 symptoms;
  • you have been exposed to a confirmed case of the virus, as informed by OPH or exposure notification through the COVID Alert app;
  • you are a resident of or work in a setting that has a COVID-19 outbreak;
  • you are eligible for testing as part of a targeted testing initiative directed by the Ministry of Health or the Ministry of Long-Term Care.

© 2020 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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