An increase in demand for COVID-19 tests is stretching laboratories thin across Ontario and delaying the processing of other important medical tests.
Michelle Hoad, CEO of the Medical Laboratory Professionals’ Association of Ontario, said at least two hospitals have reported delays in cancer test results due to the current surge.
“We don’t need all these people showing up to get PCR tested,” she said. “There’s just … tonnes of people walking into laboratories now expecting to do a PCR test and it’s just not sustainable at the rate that it’s happening.”
Labs are processing about 50,000 tests a day right now, and that’s with an exhausted workforce, Hoad said. At the busiest time of the pandemic, they averaged about 77,000 tests a day.
Hoad called on the provincial government to provide clearer guidelines about who should get tested at labs. She said people who test positive on a rapid antigen test, or who have symptoms, should assume they have COVID-19 and self-isolate.
When it comes to how the general public can help manage community spread, Hoad said people need to rethink their activities going into the holidays.
“People really need to think we’re back to square one to be able to stop the spread,” she said. “As soon as the spread slows down, we can get back to our regular lives.”
In a statement sent to CBC News, the province reported that its lab network is completing 69 per cent of PCR tests within one day of collection, and 90 per cent within two days.
The statement confirmed that some labs, including pharmacies, have struggled with an increase in demand, but also said there is still lab capacity across the province right now.
The provincial statement also included a reminder that PCR tests should be prioritized for people with active symptoms.
Health units working to combat test demand as Omicron spreads
There are other signs that COVID-19 testing capacity is being stretched in Ontario as the highly contagious Omicron variant takes hold.
Ottawa Public Health advised health workers in a memo last week that virus testing is no longer available to everyone “in a timely manner” due to a surge in demand.
As a result, public health says people who have symptoms but can’t get a test should assume they have been infected with the Omicron variant and isolate for 10 days regardless of their vaccination status.
The rule will also apply to household contacts of the person with symptoms, the health unit said, as it’s aiming to preserve tests for essential workers and vulnerable populations.
In Peterborough, Ont., the local public health unit is encouraging residents to report positive test results from rapid
COVID-19 tests online to help track cases in the community.
Currently, people who get a positive COVID-19 result on a rapid test must confirm with a PCR test, but experts have warned that capacity may run out as Omicron spreads.