Kingston Frontenac Lennox & Addington (KFL&A) Public Health’s board is bringing their concerns about long lines at Kingston’s COVID-19 assessment centre to the province. The board devised to draft a letter to Public Health Ontario and Ontario Health during their meeting on Wednesday, Sep. 23, 2020, focused on supporting the pursuit of faster testing methods.
For the past week, people lining up outside the Leon’s Centre, Kingston’s only testing site for the general public, have faced wait times of four hours or more. Some people have recounted waits as long as eight hours, as symptomatic patients and close contacts of known cases are moved to the front of the line.
Both City Councillors and Public Health officials at Wednesday’s meeting said they have received countless emails of concern about the lines.
“I’ve been getting a ton of emails saying that it’s hard to wait, especially if you’re elderly. It’s going to get colder, and there are children,” said City Councillor and Public Health Board member Jeff McLaren.
“When the weather turns sour, a lot of people will just avoid getting a test [if they have to wait outside],” suggested Board Chair Dennis Doyle.
“I saw one mother with two small children, maybe twins around three years old. She was in the line trying to entertain them, but I’d say she had hours to go in that line,” he added.
School ‘sniffles’ policy causing long lineups
Deputy Mayor and Public Health Board member Jim Neill, who is also a retired teacher, said he has received several emails from parents and teachers alike. They’re concerned about the provincial screening requirements in schools, especially in light of the test lineups.
“At the first sign of a sniffle, students are sent home,” he said. Students require a negative COVID-19 test result to return to class, can stay home for 14 days, or seek an alternate, written diagnosis from their family doctor.
One month into the school year and the typical cold and flu season, the policy appears to be contributing to the volume of test-seekers, Neill suggested.
“I can’t remember ever getting through a fall as a teacher without getting the sniffles and a mild cough. Is there any way to speed up the testing so we don’t have a backlog with so many kids getting sent home?”
Dr. Kieran Moore, Medical Officer of Health for KFL&A Public Health, confirmed that the longer lines are also leading to slower test results. “There has been a significant surge,” he said. “As a result of the surge in demand for testing ,the turnaround time for testing is getting longer, as well.”
Doyle surmised that Public Health’s mandate to manage the pandemic relied on the efficacy of testing.
“We can’t really do our job until we get our tests back,” Doyle said. “If it takes eight hours to get the test in the first place, and then it takes two days to get the test back, we can’t do the contact tracing and the isolation work that is so important to stop the spread.”
“It’s important for Public Health to try to do something,” he added.
Kingston Assessment Centres run by KHSC
McLaren asked who was responsible for the long lines, and where a complaint from KFL&A Public Health’s board could be addressed.
“We could maybe pass a resolution of concern as a board,” Doyle suggested. “Who do we go to? Do we send a letter to Dr. Theresa Tam? Who do we lobby to try to make the testing easier and faster?”
Just an hour before the Board meeting, Dr. Moore released a video on KFL&A Public Health’s YouTube channel addressing responsibility for the assessment centre. In it, he explains that Kingston Health Sciences Centre (KHSC) and Lennox & Addington Community General Hospital operate the centres in the KFL&A Public Health area.
“They provide the staffing, and Public Health Ontario provides the lab equipment necessary to get the tests done. We in Public Health started doing the assessments. When it became formalized, we handed it back to KHSC and L&A Community General Hospital,” he says.
During the meeting however, Dr. Moore suggested that the Board’s message should be directed to the province, and not the local hospital.
“The concerns we are observing at a local level are happening across the province, and across North America in terms of trying to speed up the testing,” Dr. Moore said.
He commended regional staff for completing 1,400 tests per day, seven days per week under the increasing testing burden. “We’re doing well but we can still do better,” he said.
From his consultations with provincial and federal officials, Moore confirmed that the government is investigating new, faster COVID-19 tests, as well as introducing testing in Ontario pharmacies starting Friday, though currently none in the Kingston region.
“Lab capacity locally is increasing,” he said. “They are trying to buy new equipment and hiring additional staff…I can’t thank them enough for all the things they’re doing.”
Ultimately, the Board agreed to draft a letter of support for the work that is going on to provide better, faster testing. It will be addressed to Ontario Health and Public Health Ontario, signed by both the Board Chair and Dr. Moore.
City Councillor and board member Mary Rita Holland said that while she supports the resolution, she doesn’t feel it will do enough to appease the frustrations in the community. “We’re hearing a lot about this,” she said, noting she worried communication issues will continue, whether or not the board writes a letter.
KHSC: ‘constantly recruiting’ testing staff
At a press conference on Tuesday, Sep. 15, 2020, the President and CEO of KHSC Dr. David Pichora explained to that staffing was the main limiting factor in testing centre operations.
“Finding the people who have the skills to do this stuff and getting them trained up is not an overnight event,” Pichora said.
Since then, KHSC has not responded to the Kingstonist’s multiple inquiries on staffing levels, except to say that they “are constantly recruiting and have some new staff starting as soon as possible.”
Dr. Moore did confirm that KHSC’s new Beechgrove COVID-19 assessment centre will be a bigger, more dynamic operation.
“It will be a much larger facility, it will have a drive-through component. It will have a separation of asymptomatic and symptomatic people.” Moore said.
“We’re also having a discussion tomorrow morning at 7:30 a.m. with our primary care partners and pharmacy partners,” regarding regional testing capacity, he said.
“I think we’ll have a much more fulsome strategy to make testing more accessible still. And then if the lab increases capacity, we’ll really be in a very good position when winter hits,” he said.
KHSC’s new COVID-19 Assessment Centre opens on Saturday, Sept 26, 2020 at the Beechgrove Complex in Kingston. The Leon’s Centre assessment facility will close.