Last week, the Province of BC hosted an online town hall with the Northern Health Authority (NH) to answer residents of the north’s questions around COVID-19.
Between Facebook and Youtube, almost 1,000 people viewed it live April 22.
Many questions surrounding testing for the coronavirus were asked.
Acting Chief Medical Health Officer for NH Dr. Raina Fumerton said testing is now available for those who need it, but not everyone requires a test.
“The testing strategy has had to change over time due to the circumstance at the time and what we have been able to accommodate in terms of surge capacity and capacity at our labs,” she said. “At this point in time we have the capacity to broaden our testing strategy — that was not our case initially. We had to be very focused on who we tested and there was good reason for that. Now we can test more broadly and so any British Columbian who is experiencing flu, cold 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.”
The time it takes to get results from tests has also dropped significantly in the last couple of weeks.
NH CEO Cathy Ulrich said at the beginning of the pandemic it was a much longer turnaround time for residents in the northern half of the province because of transport time. The turnaround time for results is now about 20 hours which is partially because of the increased capacity developed in the labs across the province and partly because the delivery time has improved.
“In the north, we have done a lot of work to decrease the transport time from the time the specimen is taken to getting it down to the labs in Vancouver,” she said. “We’ve now got air transport out of Fort St. John, Terrace and Prince George which has really expedited the turnaround time. There is a transport time though from tests from the north that is going to mean that it will take a bit longer for the results to come back than in other parts of the province.”
Ulrich added that in addition to that, NH is also working to add some capacity in the north. University Hospital of Northern British Columbia (Prince George) started being able to process specimens this week and they are looking at putting similar capacity in place in Fort St. John and Terrace.
Questions about testing for the COVID-19 antibody were also asked during the town hall.
Dr. Fumerton said a lot of active work is being done at the BC Centre for Disease Control validating antibody or serological studies, which is a blood test. She explained antibodies are basically a marker of whether or not you have immunity to any specific organisms including COVID.
“There will be some initial pilot studies done to validate that technology. We are probably a couple of months out to offer that more broadly to the general public,” she added. “While we wouldn’t necessarily need to test every single resident of British Columbia there will be a strategic method to how serological or blood antibody testing rolls out. We will be trying to ensure we have a very representative section of the population so that we have a good idea in British Columbia and different parts and different populations within it, what the exposure and what the immunity is in our population.”
Peace River South MLA Mike Bernier was part of the town hall, along with Stikine MLA Doug Donaldson and said he’s been fielding a lot of questions about why the Province has decided not to name specific communities that have positive COVID-19 cases.
Dr. Fumerton said that in B.C. they made the decision to only report the total number of lab confirmed cases at the health authority level except if there is an localized outbreak and added she’s happy to confirm NH doesn’t have any outbreaks in northern long-term facilities.
“One of the consequences of providing community-level data, particularly in small communities, which we have many in the north, is that we’ve noticed stigma become an issue in communities where cases have been identified either by individuals or third parties,” she said.
Also, she added that people should assume COVID-19 is circulating in their communities.
“The cases we know about are one thing but there is also what we don’t know. We only know about lab confirmed cases and we need to assume cases are circulating in our communities and we need to follow the public health guidelines.”