Canada

Private COVID-19 tests: Filling a need or a threat to public health care?

“If it’s about lab capacity, then what the hell is wrong with the Ontario labs? Why can’t they do it, but private labs can?”

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With Ontario limiting COVID-19 testing to select groups like front-line medical staff, educators and first responders, a private clinic in Kanata is bumping up its capacity to offer a one-day turnaround on PCR tests — for a fee.

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Bridlewood Medical Centre on Stonehaven Drive is offering the tests for $225 with results available within four hours. The medical office even bought its own equipment so it can do the analysis on site. Private clinics have been offering COVID testing since the beginning of the pandemic, most frequently for travellers, but there has been renewed interest since testing at public clinics was restricted.

“We’re the only one in Ottawa that I’m aware of that processes samples on site and offer that quick turnaround,” said Kymberly Champagne, practice director at Bridlewood. “That’s why we want people to know about it and to try to ease that backlog that’s happening at all the major labs in the city.”

After running samples through an RNA extraction process, Bridlewood uses a machine called a thermal cycler to test for the presence of COVID-19. The machine can process nine samples at a time and takes just over an hour to provide results.

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But critics say the emergence of private testing at clinics like Bridlewood is leading Ontario toward private health care, where only those who can afford it can get tested.

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“We have created a two-tier system,” says Ross Sutherland, chairman of the Ontario Health Coalition, an advocacy group that defends public health care in the province.

“We’ve got this health-care crisis and we’ve created a system where people don’t even know whether they’re sick,” Sutherland said. “That seems to me like it should be an essential service. So people who have money can go get tested and people that don’t are having a really difficult time.”

Champagne said Bridlewood was just stepping up to provide a service and offset the strain on public labs.

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“I definitely understand that not everyone can afford to do this, but to me it’s more of a cost versus benefit thing. How long can we afford to be off work before we’re losing money that way? Honestly, I wish this was something that the government would fund for our clinic and we didn’t have to charge at all, but that’s just not the case,” she said.

“It’s that line between private and public health care. And we’re doing what we can to lower and mitigate these costs. But, for us, it was important to have this option available locally.”

Dr. Nili Kaplan-Myrth said she recently swabbed three generations of the same family, but had the samples rejected by a public lab.
Dr. Nili Kaplan-Myrth said she recently swabbed three generations of the same family, but had the samples rejected by a public lab. Photo by Tony Caldwell /Postmedia

Ottawa family physician Dr. Nili Kaplan-Myrth said she recently swabbed three generations of one family — the grandmother definitely had COVID-19 and the mother, the grandmother’s primary caregiver, was showing troubling symptoms. Kapan-Myrth said she was shocked when the samples were rejected by a public lab.

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“We got a call back saying, ‘We’re throwing these in the garbage. We’re only doing high-risk people. Just tell her to isolate at home,’” Kaplan-Myrth said.

“I was shocked. I’d done all the work for them. If it’s about lab capacity, then what the hell is wrong with the Ontario labs? Why can’t they do it, but private labs can? And why isn’t the Ontario government taking it upon themselves to get every lab possible running these test?”

Ontario has the capacity to test up to 100,000 samples a day, Sutherland said, but hasn’t been doing anywhere near that level. And it’s not just testing where the province is falling down, he said. Despite clear evidence that N95 masks are better at preventing the spread of the highly infectious Omicron variant, the province has been slow to distribute them.

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“If the government wanted to do something right away, they could just hand out N95 masks to everyone. That would significantly help. Anyone who’s got $4 or $5 to go out and spend on an N95 mask every couple of days is doing that.

“Unfortunately, the people who don’t have that kind of money, they’re working in grocery stores or even in health-care settings, and they’re walking around with surgical masks or cloth masks. So again, we’ve created this two-tier system for masks like we have for testing. People with money are getting tests and they’re able to go on with their life and they’re getting better defences, better masks, than people who can’t afford it.”

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Meanwhile, Champagne says Bridlewood has received positive feedback from clients who’ve used its tests and is prepared to step up its service if demand increases.

“People are happy with the results and how quickly we’re able to turn around the results for this test,” she said. “Obviously, if you’re trying to book one of the public tests, you’re waiting days to get in and then you’re waiting five plus days for your results.”

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