2 new COVID-19 deaths in N.L. while testing demand overwhelms capacity

·5 min read
Health Minister John Haggie says over 6,600 COVID swabs were sent out of the province for testing. (Mark Quinn/CBC - image credit)
Health Minister John Haggie says over 6,600 COVID swabs were sent out of the province for testing. (Mark Quinn/CBC - image credit)
Mark Quinn/CBC
Mark Quinn/CBC

Two people have died from COVID-19 in the past 24 hours in Newfoundland and Labrador.

The deaths are the 22nd and 23rd since the pandemic hit the province. Both deaths are men age 70 or older in the Eastern Health region.

Health Minister John Haggie said Monday the men died while being treated at a health-care facility, but wouldn't elaborate further due to privacy concerns.

The province also reported 1,135 new cases Monday, including 680 cases reported from test samples that were sent out of province as the demand for testing in Newfoundland and Labrador has outstripped capacity, according to a media release from Public Health. Tests between Dec. 29 and Jan. 6 were sent out of province for testing.

Haggie, speaking at a media briefing about the testing, said the province has sent 6,635 swabs out of province. A total of 2,930 are still yet to be counted, with results expected to return within the next two days.

"The important thing is to realize that this sudden spike in numbers today is historical, and it represents events that have been and gone," he said. As our documentation processes ramp back up to normal, you'll see some adjustment in figures over the course of the next few days."

Swabs were sent to two locations, according to Haggie: the National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg and another lab in Toronto.

Haggie said tests were also sent out of province during an outbreak of the Delta variant in February 2021, but says demand can now be met in the province because the government has changed testing criteria.

The province has advised anyone who is symptomatic of COVID-19 and a close contact of a previous case to assume they are positive for the virus and not seek testing. People living in high-risk areas or who are symptomatic without being deemed a close contact should still be tested.

"We are no longer testing the entire population but we are looking at high-risk groups," Haggie said.

"We need to be conscious of that when we look at the numbers you see. Because we're focusing on high-risk groups, it will have a tendency to skew the data," he said.

Haggie said the changes signal work already started to move into COVID-19's endemic phase — when the pandemic has ended but the virus remains regularly found in society.

"I think it's a transition that's occurring already," he said.

"The utility of the testing now is to monitor [and] protect health-care workers and essential personnel, and also to safeguard vulnerable people and the health-care facilities and their capacity to deal with it. So I think this is all part and parcel of that shift."

Watch Monday's briefing here:

Of the 1,135 cases reported Monday, 946 are in the Eastern Health region. There are 59 cases in the Central Health region, 39 in the Western Health region, 64 in the Labrador-Grenfell Health region and 27 cases found in a private lab outside a health authority testing centre.

The province also reported 122 recoveries Monday, and the known active caseload rises to 5,955. Four people are in hospital due to the virus.

A total of 433,918 tests have now been processed, up nearly 7,000 since Sunday.

The briefing was Haggie's first public appearance since testing positive himself on Jan. 1.

"It's one of those COVID experiences I could really have done without. It was really a miserable time, and I feel better," he said.

Test results taking as long as 1 week for some

With COVID-19 testing demand outstripping capacity in the province, results that usually come back within three days are now taking up to a week — and some residents awaiting word are feeling frustrated.

Kate McLeod of St. John's is among that group.

McLeod got tested Jan. 3 after waking up with a headache and developing a cough on New Year's Eve. She said she was advised by the provincial government's online COVID-19 self-assessment tool to book an appointment for a PCR test.

"After I got the test I did expect it to take probably up to 72 hours as they were talking about because of the backlog," McLeod told CBC Radio's St. John's Morning Show on Sunday, after six days with no word.

"It's definitely been hard. With the seven-day isolation now, my isolation is over. So I don't even know if I had COVID the whole time that I was in isolation."

Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press
Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press

McLeod said she and her boyfriend both had to take time off work, and she's frustrated she has no answers for her employer on whether she had the virus. Both are fully vaccinated, and McLeod has had a booster shot.

McLeod said it's also frustrating for contacts she had for the couple of days before she became symptomatic.

"Their exposure period would be over now anyway, too. So if any of them got sick they don't even know if they were in contact with a positive case or not," she said.

And McLeod said she isn't alone. She said she has a friend who is also waiting for test results a week later, and found others on Twitter experiencing the same frustration. She said she feared the tests had been lost, or were sent to Ontario for analysis.

CBC News has asked Eastern Health for comment.

At this point, McLeod said, she won't trust her test results but would like to know if she did have COVID-19 because of the unknown long-term effects of the virus.

"Down the road, if anything were to happen to me, I'd like for it to be on record somehow that I was positive for COVID," she said. "It's just very frustrating at this point."

Haggie apologized for the long wait times but said he believes officials have been open about out-of-province testing.

"We were not sure when these results would come. They arrived over the weekend and were put into the COVID tracker so people could access them through their portal, and here we are today explaining the situation," he said.

"I would argue that we've been open and transparent and as prompt as we could under the circumstances."

The wait time for results to return once they are sent to the testing lab is about 23 hours, according to Haggie.

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