Epidemiologist warns COVID testing delays in northern B.C. likely contributing to spread

·6 min read
A surge in demand for COVID-19 tests in northern B.C. contributed to wait times for results averaging up to 74 hours in the month of October. (BCCDC file photo - image credit)
A surge in demand for COVID-19 tests in northern B.C. contributed to wait times for results averaging up to 74 hours in the month of October. (BCCDC file photo - image credit)

As cases of COVID-19 in northern B.C. climbed to record highs in October, so did wait times for people wanting to get tested for the coronavirus — and those delays are likely contributing to the disease's spread, according to an infection control epidemiologist.

Health officials have spent much of the autumn urging northern B.C. residents to get vaccinated in an effort to reduce hospitalizations, with new critical care beds being opened in other parts of the province to accommodate overflow.

But people trying to follow public health advice say they have been frustrated by a lack of other resources, including access to timely testing and results that cost days and sometimes weeks of work, even for those who are fully vaccinated.

Denise LaFrancoise of Terrace, B.C., said she first felt a sore throat on Oct. 1. Though vaccinated, she called in sick, and her employer asked her not to return until she felt better and had a negative COVID-19 test.

"I tried all that week to get in," she said. "Every time I phoned, the line would say something like 'We're busy right now, please try again later.'"

Eventually she booked an appointment with her family doctor who was able to get her a test on Oct. 9 — more than a week after she initially felt symptomatic. She was told to expect to wait another four or five days for her results, for a total of two weeks of missed work, despite no longer feeling unwell.

So LaFrancoise went to a private clinic at the Terrace airport where she paid $126 for another test and had a negative result within a matter of hours, allowing her to return to work before her public clinic results were returned days later.

"It was annoying, but I was losing more money sitting at home waiting for results," she said. "Two full weeks is quite significant. With two kids at home, it would have hit us hard."

LaFrancoise's experience is extreme, but multi-day waits to both book tests and receive results are not unusual in northern B.C., especially outside of Prince George where appointments are more accessible.

Shipping contributing to test result delays

According to B.C. Centre for Disease Control, the average test turnaround time in the Northern Health region has been between 20 and 40 hours since Sept. 1, climbing to as high as 74 hours in mid-October. By comparison, other parts of the province have average test turnaround times of between 10 and 20 hours.

The B.C. Ministry of Health said a shortage of reagent needed to process tests locally contributed to the 74-hour delays, as tests briefly had to be shipped further south to be completed.

B.C. Centre for Disease Control
B.C. Centre for Disease Control

Shipping times from remote communities have also been cited as a contributing factor to the longer overall turnaround times in Northern Health, which covers more than half of the province's land mass.

Regardless of the reasons, Colin Furness, an infection control epidemiologist at the University of Toronto, warned the long waits are likely contributing to the spread of COVID-19 in the region.

"If you're looking at three or four or five or six or more days in order to get a test and then a result, I'm not even sure we can really say that's testing," he said.

"The main reason we do testing is getting out in front of transmission. And [with those times] it can't be done. You need test results the same day, ideally, or very first thing the next day."

He argued B.C. should be sending rapid test kits to communities where delays are common, along with health officials to train people on how to self-administer them. "We should be using these tests like there's no tomorrow."

Watch | The advantages and challenges of rapid, at-home COVID-19 tests

Make rapid tests more accessible: small businesses, residents

Other provinces are experimenting with more wide-scale deployment of rapid tests. Ontario has made the kits available to staff and students in schools, while New Brunswick has made them free province-wide.

In B.C., the kits are being used in some long-term care settings, while businesses and select charities can apply to access them for asymptomatic employees and volunteers, but not to the extent everyone would like.

Kathleen Connolly, executive director of the Dawson Creek Chamber of Commerce, says the rapid-kit program is aimed at larger industrial workplaces and doesn't help small and medium-sized businesses who are struggling with staffing issues as the pandemic drags on.

"We're hearing from some folks that it is up to two days to get a test and then five to six days to get a result," she said. "When you're waiting five days to find out how you are scheduling staff, that's frustrating."

That sentiment is echoed by Connie Brown, who runs a small business in Fort St. John. After a recent COVID-19 exposure at her workplace, she chose to pay more than $1,000 to have her staff tested a private clinic rather than close for a week waiting for the results to come back through the public system.

"It's the same test, the same city, but if I pay I can get the results on a fast-track basis," she said. "I can afford it, but it's concerning, it's a two-tier system."

Dale Molnar/CBC
Dale Molnar/CBC

Kevin Koch, a Hazelton resident who had to wait two days for his 10-year-old daughter to get a test and another four for the results, expressed similar concerns.

"I've got friends who work for industry who have access to all these rapid testing kits, and I wonder why the rest of us are having to wait a really long time."

Connolly has asked the province to consider reimbursing workplaces for either the cost of buying rapid kits or sending employees to private clinics to make testing more accessible.

She said both Dr. Bonnie Henry and the Premier's office have reached out for further discussion, but so far no action has been taken.

Meanwhile, she said the lack of quick testing means people who may have COVID-19 are moving around town because, "in their mind, they don't have it," unless they have a positive result.

"So it's about the safety of our community, as well," she said.

Koch worries about the same thing in his small town, where an increasing number of people are getting sick with the virus.

"How many people are gonna say screw it, I've only got a sore throat, it's gonna affect the next week of my life, I'm not going to get tested?" he asked. "That's part of the concern for me."

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