The story behind the numbers: COVID-19 testing in Waterloo Region
KITCHENER -- Ontario Premier Doug Ford is taking aim at medical officers of health around the province, saying they need to "pick their socks up" and test more people.
The provincial government set a goal of completing 16,000 tests a day across the province by May 6, a landmark it has since passed as it continues to track and slow the spread of COVID-19.
As of April 30, Waterloo Region, a municipality of more than 500,000 people, was testing an average of 206 people a day.
While that number may look smaller than it should be, Acting Medical Officer Dr. Hsiu-Li Wang says there is more to the story.
"I think we have to be careful about directly comparing the provincial rate and then extrapolating, based on our population, our local rate," she said at a Wednesday morning media briefing.
She also says that the region has scaled up significantly since the start of the pandemic.
Through the month of April, average testing looked like this:
- From April 1 to 10, an average of 113 tests were being done daily
- From April 11 to 20, an average of 138 tests were being done daily
- From April 21 to 30, an average of 206 tests were being done daily
Dr. Wang says that there were "significant shortages of swab supplies" when the province began ramping up its testing efforts, meaning that health-care partners in the region couldn't immediately increase their testing.
She also says that the region has gone above what the province has outlined in its priority testing: while the province designated long-term care homes as priority testing areas, regional officials also expanded that to include retirement homes
"As public health units we do not do the testing ourselves, so we are working hard with our community health-care partners who are doing the testing to continue to increase the number of tests performed in our community," Dr. Wang said Wednesday.
Swabs no longer an issue, but lab capacity issues persist
While swab shortages are no longer an issue, lab capacity appears to be a bottleneck.
Some priority tests—such as those in long-term care homes or critical patients—are being processed in the lab in 24 to 48 hours.
But, Dr. Wang notes, that timeframe only accounts for the lab time: it doesn't include the process of getting the swab from public health to a lab, and then returning the results from the lab back to public health.
Part of the issue, she believes, is the increase in testing demands from long-term care facilities around the province.
Dr. Wang also says that Region of Waterloo Public Health and its partners have to be careful about how many tests they send to a lab at any one time.
Another possible issue is that the bulk of the lab testing is not done in Waterloo Region: most of the tests are processed in labs in Toronto, Hamilton or London.
If tests are sent to one of those facilities but it doesn't have the capacity for them, Dr. Wang says they can be rerouted to another lab that may have the capacity.
"It's meant to ensure that it's not dependent on specific labs only, it can get rerouted as needed to other labs as needed, but it is a very complex system," Dr. Wang explained.
Province overseeing a developing lab system
Dr. Wang notes that the lab system, which is overseen by the province, is being built in the midst of the pandemic.
That means there are still some efficiency issues which need to be sorted out, issues which can affect daily numbers reporting.
"Over the weekend, they don't have a good system right now provincially for couriering our tests over the weekends, so what ends up happening is the numbers drop on Mondays," she said Wednesday.
"So that's also part of the issue, it isn't because that one day we all decided we would test less people."
Dr. Wang said she is confident that the system is improving, and that testing capacities will continue to increase in Waterloo Region and around the province.
There are 871 cases of COVID-19 in Waterloo Region. Of those, 395 people have recoveredand 94 people have died.