'Blindly going forward': Urgent call for more COVID-19 testing as B.C. sees waits of hours or days
Amid increasing reports of lengthy waits for COVID-19 testing and soaring case numbers involving children, the former head of the B.C. Centre for Disease Control is urging officials to increase surveillance in the province.
From waits of up to three hours in North Vancouver to days-long waits for appointments in some rural areas, a growing number of complaints have been reported from frustrated test-seekers. The reports began in the Interior Health and Northern Health regions two weeks ago, but have since spread to the Lower Mainland and Vancouver Island.
"We've been ramping up as fast as we can,” insisted provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry at a press conference on Tuesday.
But a comparison of the BCCDC’s listing of COVID-19 collection sites on Sept. 28 showed 100 locations province-wide, the same number as Sept. 17, with nearly all locations outside Metro Vancouver requiring an appointment in advance and widespread reports of people unable to book one.
"A lot of people when they call a doctor or medical professional are actually discouraged from getting tested. (They're told to) just stay home and don't go out and risk transmitting it to other people," said UBC School of Population and Public Health professor, Dr. Mark Tyndall. “When there's this many infections that are circulating right now that are being detected, I think it's a sizable underestimation of the number of people that are truly infected."
Henry was defensive when asked if the long waits for testing suggest public health doesn’t have a reliable indication of how much virus is circulating in the community.
“I do think we have a pretty good handle on it, it’s been a challenge and there’s a couple ways we look at surveillance over time," she said. “The bottom line is yes, it’s important to get tested, it’s important to self-isolate and to stay away from others if you have symptoms at all.”
WARNING FROM A FORMER PUBLIC HEALTH LEADER
Though he’s now occupied with his teaching position at UBC, Tyndall is an infectious disease specialist who was the previous head of the BCCDC and one-time deputy provincial health officer.
He believes B.C.’s low testing rate has seen a long-term under-counting of COVID-19 infections, and he's urging public health to adopt rapid tests for workplaces, schools and doctors’ offices while dramatically expanding lab-confirmed PCR testing, particularly in the wake of the spike in infections among children.
"I think opening the schools is a big experiment and we should at the very least be quite vigilant in testing people, and I think governments really need to put a priority on making tests easily accessible -- people shouldn't be lined up,” he said. “We're blindly going forward and the concern is we have a large number of kids being potentially exposed and transmitting it around their classrooms and bringing it home."
There are only 10 testing locations for all of Fraser Health, which serves a population of 1.9 million people, and only one location in Surrey. There are none to serve the UBC population, only one location in Richmond and it's located at Sea Island, and just one in Burnaby to serve that city, New Westminster and Simon Fraser University. As late as 7 p.m. Tuesday, Vancouver’s only drive-through testing site at St. Vincent still had an hour-long wait.
B.C. has consistently lagged behind other provinces and the national average in per-capita testing, with conflicting and contradictory criteria at times. This week, however, data from the Public Health Agency shows that B.C. performed 276 tests per 100,000 residents compared to 219 for Ontario and 345 in Alberta; the national average was 281 per 100,000.
Other high-profile experts have urged the province to expand testing throughout the pandemic, but Henry has rejected widespread use of rapid tests and asymptomatic testing.
FAMILIES STRUGGLING TO GET CHILDREN TESTED
CTV News has spoken with several families who described long, frustrating waits for tests after developing symptoms, often after being in close contact with confirmed COVID-19 cases; iPads and other entertainment methods are frequently cited as required equipment to keep children co-operative while waiting one to three hours in line at drive-through testing sites.
“We saw this coming in August so it's really shocking to me that we don't have our testing going, we don't have it easily accessible – it is baffling to me that we are 18 months into the pandemic and this is happening," said Lindsay Dixon, who tried to make an appointment for her sick four-year-old Monday morning.
The earliest slot she could get near their Victoria home was Wednesday morning, with the scheduler describing the call centre as “swamped."
“It makes me worried of other families that just get tired of waiting or stop seeking testing and just put their kids back in school," said Dixon. “If we want to keep our economy open and keep parents working, we really need to keep kids safe and healthy in school. If we don't, the whole economy, everything will come to a grinding halt."
Jennifer Aldrich went to a North Vancouver testing site Monday afternoon with her teen and was stunned to see cars wrapped around the block and a staffer warning the wait would be three hours. Both are vaccinated but are close contacts of a confirmed case who now has mild symptoms and is self-isolating while awaiting test results.
“I definitely think that access is a huge issue,” she said. “It does seem at the moment that the system is not designed to invite people to be tested."