University Hospital of Northern B.C. in Prince George is now able to test samples taken from individuals showing symptoms of COVID-19, with capacity soon to be added in Fort St. John and Terrace, Northern Health CEO Cathy Ulrich said Wednesday night during a virtual town hall.
The testing at UHNBC started this week, Ulrich said, to help lower the response time from tests taken of area residents. Previously, samples taken from the region were being transported by air to labs in Vancouver.
There have been 2,687 tests in the north as of April 22, with an average turnaround time down now to around 20 hours.
That’s due to increased capacity at labs across the province and decreased transport times from the north, Ulrich said.
“We now got air transport out of Fort St. John, Terrace, and Prince George, which has really expedited the turnaround time,” Ulrich said. “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 results to come back to the north than it might in other parts of the province.”
The health authority is working to add lab testing capacity in Fort St. John and Terrace, Ulrich added, though no timeline was given.
Provincial health officer Dr Bonnie Henry said earlier this week that testing for COVID-19 is now being expanded to anyone who thinks they may have the virus. Until recently, testing has mainly targeted to people who are most at risk, like front-line health care workers.
"So, right now, anyone with symptoms of COVID-19 can now be assessed and tested, either through your family physician, your nurse practitioner, or a local community collection centre, and you can call 811 to find out where those are," Dr Henry said.
Dr Henry says anyone who has come into contact with someone known to have the virus, or who has been associated with an outbreak, can also ask for a test.
Along with the reduced time to test samples, the ability to do more testing has also increased.
“We have the capacity now to broaden our testing capacity,” Dr Raina Fumerton, Northern Health’s acting chief medical health officer, explained. “That wasn’t the case previously. Health care providers can order testing based on their clinical judgment.”
There are 40 lab-confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the north, with two people currently in hospital, both in intensive care. Thirty-two people have recovered from the coronavirus that causes the respiratory disease, and the BC Centre for Disease Control says the true number of cases is likely greater than that reported.
It will still be a few months before blood testing for virus antibodies is available. The BCCDC is currently validating antibody and serological studies, Dr Fumerton said.
"Serological basically means a blood test, and antibodies are basically a marker of whether or not you have an immunity to any specific organism, including COVID,” Dr Fumerton said. “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.”
Even then, not every resident will need to be tested, and there will be a strategy for testing, she said.
“We’ll be trying to ensure that we have a very representative section of the population so that we have a good idea in British Columbia, and the different parts of British Columbia, and the different populations within it, what the exposure is, what the immunity is in our population.”
The virtual town hall was hosted by Mike Bernier, Liberal MLA for Peace River South, and Doug Donaldson, NDP MLA for Stikine and the forests minister in the NDP government. About 800 people tuned into the hour-long question and answer segment.
Many people following the livestream on Facebook wanted to know whether Northern Health has enough personal protective equipment for health-care workers in its facilities across the region.
“Right now, Northern Health does have enough PPE,” Ulrich said when the question was posed later in the broadcast. “It’s a very vulnerable supply chain and we’re worrying about it moment to moment.”
Several individuals in the comments feed questioned if that was really the case, pointing to an Alaska Highway News story published Tuesday about a call out to the public from the Fort St. John Hospital Foundation for facemasks for frontline health-care workers.
As the weather improves and temperatures rise this spring, more people want to get outside and that’s OK, Fumerton stressed, as long as people are staying safe.
“I get that it can be confusing between an order and a recommendation. There have been no provincial or federal orders to stay home... in a lockdown,” she said. “The expectation is that there will never be 100 per cent compliance. People need to get out and get groceries. By and large, people across the North are taking this seriously and we’re doing a good job flattening the curve.”
— with files from the Prince George Citizen