• JMac

What is happening with COVID testing in our city?

* Photo credit: Kate Dubinski/CBC London

The last six months have been trying. In comparison to the U.S., the Canada COVID response has been pretty good. Our cases and deaths are a sliver of what's happening south of the 49th parallel. By and large, our government has had reasonable responses to the needs of businesses and citizens both federally and provincially.

Locally, things have been hard. Friends of mine have lost their businesses already. Our economy is struggling. Unemployment is high. People are isolated, bored, frustrated, and nervous.

All along, we have heard the same public health messaging. Wash your hands.

Stay six feet apart.

Keep your bubble to 10 or less total people.

Wear a mask.

I can only imagine what it must be like for public health staff to go from what they studied in school and planned and prepared for to living a public health pandemic with no reasonable end in sight.

One of the easiest ways to navigate such unseen and uncharted territory is to receive strong and transparent guidance and information from people in charge. What are you doing for us? Why are you doing it? What should we be doing? Why? What are your limitations? How can we navigate around them?

When it comes to COVID specifically, I think Doug Ford and Justin Trudeau have been doing a fair job. Lots of press conferences. Lots of plans. Lots of programs. Lots of updates.

On May 24th, Premier Ford said "if you want a test, go get a test".

Prior to September 2020, it seemed like that was easily done in London. And then the students came back. Multiple outbreaks hit locally. Now we can't get tests.

London has had two testing centres since the spring, and Western thankfully added one on campus once the cases on campus exploded.

The three we have clearly aren't enough. All last week, the two community testing centres starting receiving lineups at the crack of dawn and turning people away between mid day and early afternoon. The new CPC leader, Erin O'Toole, was turned away from a centre in Ottawa after a many hour wait,.

He ended up testing positive for COVID in a private test. This is one high profile example of what can be assumed to be more common than we want it to be, given the information at hand.

Things seemed to be working in London up until September. Two testing centres open all week, one closed on weekends.

A week ago, school started for thousands of students across our public school boards, and Western campus re-opened with 70% residence capacity. An outbreak on campus at Western immediately happened.

One hit Hyde Park Wal Mart staff as well.

Remember our consistent public health messaging? Test trace isolate. Remember what Doug Ford said? If you want a test, get a test.

Right now, I have a father in law in Long Term Care. He was admitted during the outbreak and between being in the hospital awaiting a bed and getting a bed, he went five months without any human contact other than masked care staff.

We finally got to see him as of last month, provided there was a negative test within the past two weeks in hand.

Our kids, in daycare, kindergarten, and grade two have to come home and get a negative COVID test at the first sign of fall sniffles or a mild fever.

As it stands right now, we won't be getting tested to go see Jim. If our kids get mild symptoms traceable to COVID from school or daycare, we either sit in a car or all day or ride them out and monitor them from home. Meaning more missed work.

Because our local testing centres are turning people away at midday, making others wait for four to five hours at a time, and is still closing 1 of 2 centres on weekends.

Why is our capacity so limited? Let's examine what we do know.

The Middlesex London Health Unit has had an interesting ride during COVID.

A long planned move happened during the outbreak. A lot of furniture and technology was abandoned at the former site. The hectic nature of the pandemic was to blame, according to spokespeople from MLHU. Overall savings were cited as another reason why this was okay.

In July, our Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Chris Mackie, had his CEO double duties reassigned to a new hire, due to a need to "focus on the pandemic".

It's now September, and many experts believe the second wave is here.

London is the fifth biggest city in Ontario. It's nice that Western added their own testing centre to respond to the on-campus outbreak. It's amazing that the university doubled its testing capacity overnight in response to the explosion of cases amongst students. I tip my hat to them, and give them a rousing standing ovation.

Why can't our health unit expand their testing capacity as well in response to the purported second wave and multiple local outbreaks?

It was decided that Dr. Mackie was too busy with COVID to perform CEO duties. On Wednesday September 16th at 1 pm, mid week mid work day, he spoke at a private virtual members-only event for the Canadian Club of London, with a paid admission..

The health unit had money to leave a pile of furniture and technology behind during a move, so that they could instead buy new. The Health Unit had money to hire someone else to take over Dr. Mackie's CEO duties because he was too busy with COVID.

But our local testing centres remain Monday to Friday 9 am to 5 pm at Oakridge, and 7 days a week 11 am to 7 pm at Carling Heights.

Western doubled their testing capacity in response to an outbreak amongst students. Ours remained the same.

On Sunday, Ontario reported a record 40,000 tests in the preceding 24 hours. While one of two testing centres in the fifth biggest city was closed.

I took to twitter and expressed my concerns to Dr. Mackie, Mayor Holder, LHSC, MLHU, Minister of Health Christine Elliot, Minister of Labour Monte McNaughton, and local MPPs Terence Kernaghan, Peggy Sattler, Teresa Armstrong, and Jeff Yurek. I asked them to please do everything possible to increase testing capacity locally given the public health insistence on "test trace isolate" being a key to stopping the virus, and that Ontario had set a one day record despite half of our already too low capacity being removed for the weekend. Mayor Holder's director of communications, Nathan Smith, took issue with my comments, specifically that I said "the virus doesn't take weekends off, but our HU (health unit, thanks twitter character limits) does". Referring to this as ignorant, and giving "this is happening in communities across Ontario" in way of as much clarification as was to be offered. Link to thread here

This all leads us to some very important key questions yet to be addressed.

  1. How is the province reaching a new record in testing on a weekend when the fifth biggest city in the province closes its testing capacity by half? What is London missing out on?

  2. What needs to be done to be able to be as flexible to the pandemic as Western is, where they doubled testing capacity literally overnight?

  3. What can citizens do to ensure the London community is on par with the rest of the province in terms of access to immediate testing as needed?

I offered my money, my time, or my voice to the Mayor's office through Director of Communications Nathan Smith. He has yet to take me up on my offer.

It will be interesting to see where things go from here.

Is it a money issue? Money didn't seem to be an issue when moving locations or changing leadership structure.

Is it a time issue? Dr. Mackie was reported to be too busy but now given his speaking engagements we have reason to pause.

Why doesn't London have what everyone else in the province seems to be getting a decent shot at?

Reasonable access to testing seems to be possible given the record set on September 19th, a weekend Saturday.

What are we missing?

** Note: I fired this off in a stream of consciousness with links to confirm if my major details were in fact correct as remembered. If I have misstated or overlooked anything, I am happy to confirm and correct as pointed out. I'm not a journalist but I also do believe in accuracy and transparency when sharing personal opinions in the public realm too.

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