Private clinics providing COVID testing for paying customers, as public health increases capacity

·5 min read
A number of private companies in Newfoundland and Labrador offer swabs for COVID-19 for a fee, but the provincial government says it has almost caught up with the backlog for a test.
A number of private companies in Newfoundland and Labrador offer swabs for COVID-19 for a fee, but the provincial government says it has almost caught up with the backlog for a test.

(Bertrand Guay/AFP via Getty Images - image credit)

With the recent COVID-19 outbreak sending testing numbers to record highs in Newfoundland and Labrador, some private companies have stepped in to offer a swab — for a fee — but the province says it's up to the task of meeting test demand.

June Tavenor, a registered nurse who runs Catalyst Health in Paradise, says her company's been busy dealing with requests to get people tested.

"We are absolutely trying our best to return all those calls and get all those appointments taken care of to help these folks," she said Tuesday on CBC Radio's St. John's Morning Show.

"It's an all-hands-on-deck kind of situation here. We want to make sure that we're supporting the public system as best that we can in our private capacity."

Tavenor's company will swab anyone who needs a test after completing the online public health 811 assessment — and who has $60 — then send the swab to the public health lab for testing.

A private test costs $250 for anyone needing a test for work or travel, or who doesn't qualify for a test by public health but wants a test done anyway. In that instance, Catalyst sends the swab off to a private lab for analysis.

Tavenor said Catalyst Health provided other medical services at the beginning of the pandemic, but shifted its focus to COVID-19 testing when private testing capacity became available. Now, that's allowing the company to help support public health as well.

"When there was a situation where somebody needed a private COVID test that was certainly qualified for a public health test, which of course is anybody with a symptom or any kind of exposure, then we were able to provide that as well," she said.

"[It's] very similar to having your blood collected privately."

Public lab capacity increasing

With more than 2,500 people tested since Tuesday afternoon, Premier Andrew Furey said the province has nearly eliminated the backlog of people waiting for a COVID-19 test.

Furey said the province now has support from Ottawa for "surge capacity testing," which would allow PCR tests to be processed at federal government laboratories elsewhere in the country.

Government of Newfoundland and Labrador
Government of Newfoundland and Labrador

While local private labs might seem like another option to increase testing numbers, Health Minister John Haggie says it wouldn't put the province any further ahead.

"We act as a validator or a confirmer for the private lab, so it would be a circular affair, and the feds have this long-standing arrangement for surge capacity," he said.

"The demand for swabs currently is more than able to be met by our existing capacity and there's one more machine in St. John's being commissioned as we speak, which will further increase our public lab capacity for PCR."

During Monday's provincial briefing, Haggie said the new machine should increase testing capacity by up to 35 per cent. Add in the federal support, and the health minister said testing capacity will be well above the previous capacity of 2,300 tests a day.

"We reckon, all routes in, by the end of next week or the beginning of the week after, we will have the capacity to test 7,000 samples per day," Haggie said.

Clinic seeking approval for rapid testing

Chris Ensing/CBC
Chris Ensing/CBC

Dr. Todd Young, who runs Main Street Medical in Springdale, is now seeking to start rapid testing.

Young said he applied to the province for approval to buy and use rapid test kits from Spartan Bioscience, but was told his application could not be considered because the government is in "caretaker mode" due to the general election being called.

With that application essentially dead in the water, Young said private companies in the central Newfoundland area he's been in talks with have opted to buy rapid test kits and have Young's clinic run the testing.

"What we want, of course, is to protect workers going on sites for industry, and I mean for all of those companies, they definitely do not want anybody on site that could close their operation down," Young said.

"As an occupational health physician, I'm just trying to offer this service so that we're protecting not only employers and industry, but employees and people in our area."

The cost for an individual test kit is around $169 — "I think that's about the break-even point," Young said.

"These units are not very cheap, and as part of the medical oversight for many of these companies, I'm committed to doing what we can to partner with them to make sure they have a safe workplace. There are certain costs that would be passed on to industry, and they're willing to accept those costs."

Spartan Bioscience
Spartan Bioscience

Young said he thinks private clinics offering rapid testing to industries would help, rather than hinder and delay, the testing process.

"Actually it's helping the process, because what would happen is we would get a presumptive positive, then we would still do a swab and send it off as a confirmatory test, which is no different than what is happening now with some of the other testing," Young told CBC Newfoundland Morning.

As a physician, he would still be responsible for sending any presumptive positive results to public health officials.

"Whether it's chlamydia, rabies or COVID-19, I have the same professional responsibility, so anybody who has a test that's positive, we would have to follow the same reporting obligation."

Young hopes to start running private testing next week, once his staff have been trained in the use of the kits.

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