COVID-19 testing has increased in the Northern Health region, and capacity continues to rise.
During a virtual townhall meeting hosted by Stikine MLA Doug Donaldson and Peace River South MLA Mike Bernier April 22, Northern Health (NH) CEO Cathy Ulrich and Acting Chief Medical Health Officer Dr. Raina Fumerton addressed the issue of COVID-19 testing and answered questions about the supply of personal protective equipment in the region and hospital capacity.
Many of the questions submitted ahead of the meeting centred around testing for COVID-19. At the time of the virtual meeting, Fumerton said NH had tested 2,687 people in the health authority region, which covers an area of 600,000 square kilometres in the northern part of B.C., stretching south to Quesnel, north to the Yukon border, east to the Alberta border and west to Haida Gwaii. As of Monday, April 27, the number of people tested in the NH region had risen to 3,126.
Q: Dr. Henry says more testing is being done. How come NH is not offering testing to people who are sick and call their number?
Dr. Fumerton: As you know, the testing strategy has had to change over time due to the circumstances at the different times and what we’ve been able to accommodate in terms of surge capacity and capacity at our labs. At this point in time, I’m really pleased to say we have capacity to broaden our testing strategy. That was not the case initially; we had to be very focused in who we tested, and there was good reason for that. Now we have the ability to test more broadly, and so any British Columbian who is exhibiting cold-, flu- or COVID-like symptoms can be assessed to get a COVID test from a physician or nurse practitioner. Health care providers can order a COVID test for any patient based on their clinical judgment at this point in time.
We have COVID-19 testing locations in communities across the north at this point in time. In some cases, a physician or nurse practitioner may decide a person with symptoms can be managed at home and does not need to be tested, so, again, there’s some clinical judgment in all of this, but certainly, testing is available for those who need it — and, of course, not everyone requires a test.
Q: According to the B.C. COVID Dashboard, the average test turnaround time for the north is between 40 and 80 hours, while the rest of B.C. is only around 20 hours. As subsequent phases seem to require much higher testing frequencies, is there a plan to improve the number and efficiency for testing here in the north?
Ulrich: We have dropped the time significantly, so at the beginning, it was a much longer turnaround time. That now is down to around 20 hours turnaround time. That is partly because there’s been increased capacity developed in the labs across the province, but also in the north, we have done a lot of work to decrease the transport time from the time that specimen is taken to getting it down to the labs in Vancouver. We’ve now got air transport from Fort St. John, Terrace and Prince George, which has really expedited the turnaround time. There is a transport time though for tests from the north that is going to mean that it will take a bit longer for the tests to come back to the north than in other parts of the province. In addition, we are working to add some capacity in the north, so [the University Hospital of Northern British Columbia in Prince George] started being able to process specimens this week, and we are looking to put similar capacity in place in Fort St. John and Terrace.
Q: Will individuals be able to get testing for antibodies for coronavirus soon? How will people be tested and can anyone request it?
Dr. Fumerton: There’s a lot of active work being done as we speak at the B.C. Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC) validating antibody or serological studies is the other term you might hear — serological basically means a blood test, and antibodies are basically a marker of whether or not you have immunity to a specific organism, including COVID. That is actively being worked on, and there will be some sort of initial pilot studies done to validate that technology. We’re probably a couple of months out from being able to offer that more broadly to the general population, and while we wouldn’t necessarily need to test every single resident of British Columbia, there will be a strategic method to how serological or antibody testing rolls out, and we will be trying to ensure we have a very representative section of the population so we have a good idea in B.C. and the different parts of B.C. and the different parts within it, what the exposure is and what the immunity is in our population.
The full Northern Health virtual townhall meeting can be found online at youtube.com/watch?v=xzudMW__Bnk.
As of Monday, April 27, there are 43 COVID-19 cases in the Northern Health region. In B.C., there were 1,998 total cases, including 795 in the Vancouver Coastal Health region, 117 in the Vancouver Island Health region, 164 in the Interior Health region and 879 in the Fraser Health region. In the Northern Health region, as of April 27, three people are currently hospitalized with COVID-19, while there have been zero confirmed deaths, and 35 people had recovered.
Since the meeting, NH released an information bulletin Tuesday, April 28 saying B.C.’s testing strategy has expanded to include anyone with cold, influenza or COVID-19-like symptoms, however mild. The symptoms of COVID-19 are similar to other respiratory illnesses, including the flu and common cold, and include fever, chills, cough, shortness of breath, sore throat, painful swallowing, stuffy or runny nose, loss of sense of smell, headache, muscle aches, fatigue, and loss of appetite.
If a person tests positive, they will be contacted by public health officials. Anyone seeking COVID-19 testing should be self-isolating until they receive a negative test result. Most results are available within 24-48 hours of the test.
Testing can be done through a primary care provider, walk-in clinic, urgent primary care centre or community collection centre.
Contact your physician or nurse practitioner’s office, or call the NH COVID Online Clinic at 1-844-645-7811, to arrange for a test. Phone numbers and locations of collection centres can be found by visiting bccdc.ca/health-info/diseases-conditions/covid-19/testing, or by calling 8-1-1.