Daily testing static as B.C. cases surge with long waits for swabs
VANCOUVER -- As cases surge with hours-long waits for COVID-19 tests, B.C. health officials insist they’re working on expanding testing but won’t say when that’ll happen as a CTV News analysis found testing rates have barely changed despite government promises.
On Friday the province recorded 84 confirmed cases of the coronavirus, matching the height of the first wave of the outbreak in March. In the months since, testing has remained largely unchanged: at the peak in mid-March, 3,421 tests were conducted in a single day and on Thursday, only 3,615 British Columbians were tested.
Throughout the week, Vancouver’s two main testing sites on Heather Street and Vancouver Centre saw waits averaging two to three hours – with many people telling CTV News they were turned away well before closing time since they wouldn’t be seen in time.
"As I came up [to the St. Vincent’s location] when it opened at 9 a.m., the line-up was already down 33rd Avenue all the way to Cambie Street and down Cambie about two blocks," said Ryan Voutilainen of his experience on Tuesday. "From there it was about 2.5 hours in line, stop and go all the way to get tested."
Usabelle Commerford had a similar experience at the City Centre UPCC on Friday morning, when she talked to CTV News at 10:15 a.m. while still in line despite showing up 15 minutes before it opened at 8 a.m.
"It’s especially frustrating because I don’t even know if I have it because I’m pretty much symptom-free minus just a sore throat but I was just in contact with my partner’s grandparents and a newborn baby so I just want to be tested to know for sure," said the young adult, who was following the provincial health officer’s directions for 20-somethings to test even mild symptoms.
During the first peak in cases in the spring, many people complained that they were turned away for testing despite textbook symptoms since there was limited testing capacity and only severe cases or those working in healthcare. At the time, the health minister promised they were working on adding testing capacity.
"We are doubling and doubling and doubling and that will continue," said Adrian Dix on March 19.
But the province’s own data shows that testing never exceeded the 3,421 tests carried out the week he made that promise, with more or less static testing until a new testing peak Aug. 13, and even then there were only 200 more tests completed in a single day despite expanding the criteria to anyone with even one, mild symptom.
CTV News asked Vancouver Coastal Health and the Fraser Health Authority, where the longest waits were, why testing capacity hadn’t been increased to meet demand and the spike in confirmed cases spurred in part by exposures at parties and other large gatherings – and got vague responses without timelines for action.
"Vancouver Coastal Health recognizes there is increased demand for testing, and we are working to expand our resources to better meet the demand for testing," the health authority said in an email statement.
VCH suggested those in their jurisdiction look elsewhere for testing if they find the wait times too long, but Fraser Health acknowledged wait times can be as little as 15 minutes or several hours in their testing centres.
"We have the ability to increase our testing capacity as required and we are actively exploring where the priority areas are within our region," they wrote in an email. "We will share more information once expansion plans are finalized."
Neither explained whether capacity would come in the form of more technicians or longer hours at existing testing locations or if new testing sites would be added.
The province’s top doctor touched on testing rates at an update for journalists on Thursday, where she presented modelling detailing demographic, socioeconomic and testing data, among other details.
"Our lab capacity now is good," said Dr. Bonnie Henry, though she didn’t address whether swab collection and sample intake is sufficient for the current demand. "We are continuing to build out our lab capacity as we go into the fall and our intent is to have rapid access to laboratory capacity at about 20,000 tests per day across the province."