Manitoulin Island health care partners ran more than 7,000 COVID-19 tests in 2020

Two Manitoulin-Sudbury DSB paramedics demonstrate the process of getting swabbed at a home appointment. If you suspect you may have COVID-19, call one of Manitoulin Health Centre’s assessment lines and the health care worker will determine whether you should be tested at home or at a designated screening site.

Rapid testing will soon be available across Island

MANITOULIN – Island health providers completed at least 7,178 COVID-19 tests in 2020, with trends showing a steady gradual increase in testing figures from the agencies that provided weekly breakdowns in their figures to The Expositor.

“The cases in the first wave were so much lower than in the second wave, so you would expect that (increasing trend). You also have to take into account the number of times the eligibility criteria was changed by the ministry,” said Manitoulin Health Centre (MHC) president and CEO Lynn Foster, reflecting on the trends shown in the data.

Manitoulin-Sudbury District Services Board Paramedic Services (which operates the assessment centres at the two MHC sites) performed the vast majority (86 percent) of the tests on the Island that agencies reported to The Expositor.

After making such requests since early January, this newspaper did not receive any testing figures from Naandwechige-Gamig Wikwemikong Health Centre and did not get totals from two of the Island’s three long-term care (LTC) facilities.

Ms. Foster said she found it useful to look at the data in 12-week (three-month) chunks to represent three phases of the pandemic in Ontario last year. In the first block, until the end of May, numbers were fairly low as providers began to roll out their testing services and began to learn more about the virus.

“We didn’t see a ton of pick-up in the Northeast, including on Manitoulin, so to me that was just the start-up phase and I’m not surprised to see those numbers,” she said.

The next block, from June through the end of August, saw testing numbers jump more than four times. Test swabs and lab capacity became more widely available at this time, which coincided with a loosening of testing requirements, meaning even asymptomatic people could get tests. These two factors drove a large portion of the increase.

The final block, from September through November, saw a smaller increase but still a notable jump from the summer. Testing criteria became more restricted again, but the second wave brought much higher case counts. More testing took place due to the resumption of in-person schooling and periods such as Thanksgiving.

For the last six weeks of the year, the numbers went higher again as the second wave surged strongly.

“It will be interesting to see how this plays out in the phase post-Christmas, (now that) the lockdown is in place,” Ms. Foster said.

The hospital has switched to reducing the number of days it offers testing, instead offering extended hours on the days its assessment centres are open. Ms. Foster said that method has proven successful and will continue.

Testing followed a relatively stable trend at Northeastern Manitoulin Family Health Team (NEFHT), which saw weekly fluctuations follow a fairly flat weekly average over the summer and into the end of the year. Between the first week of July and the end of the year, it tested 305 people. 

There was a notable drop in tests completed at NEFHT near the end of December and over the holidays, which may owe to that clinic’s main purpose of offering asymptomatic tests for people who are heading for medical appointments in Sudbury and require proof of COVID-19-negative status. There would have been far fewer of these off-Island appointments in Sudbury around the Christmas and New Year’s season.

Assiginack Family Health team told The Expositor that it had completed 380 tests up to the end of 2020, but was unable to provide a weekly breakdown to show how trends evolved over time.

Noojmowin Teg Health Centre previously offered asymptomatic testing for some of its staff and community members, but it stopped this practice in October. It performed 158 tests in 2020.

Wikwemikong Nursing Home completed a weekly average of about 29 tests between April and the end of the year, with weekly testing totals ranging from one swab to 108. Its total test count by the end of the year was 794.

The Expositor received no data from the Manitoulin Centennial Manor in Little Current. A statement from Jarlette Health Services, which operates Manitoulin Lodge Nursing Home in Gore Bay, stated that it “has been testing regularly as per directive three for LTC homes with approximately 60 members.” Spokesperson Stephanie Barber did not respond to follow-up requests for more detailed information. 

Rapid tests coming to MHC

In addition to the main paramedic-run assessment centres at the two hospital sites, MHC and some Island health partners are presently rolling out rapid COVID-19 testing at locations across Manitoulin. The new ‘ID Now’ COVID-19 tests will provide results in as little as 15 minutes, as opposed to the current swab tests that go to external laboratories and have a 72-hour turnaround time.

MHC has one rapid testing device at each of its two sites and hospital staff are presently devising policies and conducting training for the devices.

“(Rapid testing) is going to be extremely helpful,” said MHC VP of clinical services and chief nursing officer Paula Fields at a recent MHC board meeting, adding that the plan is to have testing available 24/7 at both sites.

The quick tests do have limitations. Any negative results must be further confirmed through the trusted swab lab evaluations, but positive tests are considered accurate. This makes the rapid tests most suitable for symptomatic individuals.

MHC is also getting an additional rapid test solution in February called BioFire. That company’s solution is extremely accurate but each test is rather expensive to conduct.

“We’re limited to 90 (BioFire) tests per month so we have to be very cautious as to who we administer tests to,” Ms. Fields said, adding that Manitoulin Collaborative health partners are working on a co-ordinated testing plan for the Island.