Canada's coronavirus numbers skewed by inadequate testing

Limited access to coronavirus testing means that Canadians are not getting an accurate count of how many cases are active in the nation.

Tests for coronavirus have been limited in some Canadian provinces, such as Ontario, BC and Alberta, due to reduced lab capacity and a shortage of specific chemicals needed for testing. Health care workers on the front lines are currently a priority as are hospitalized patients and people who have recently travelled, according to Global News.

Experts think that this focus may lead to health officials missing up to thousands of cases. If this happens it will be hard to tell whether Canada is really “flattening the curve” or not.

Peter Phillips, a clinical professor who specializes in infectious diseases at UBC said, “We would like to see greater access to testing so that we aren’t left in a situation where there’s uncertainty around whether a particular person may or may not have the disease.”

“And that applies to even people with mild disease in the community.”

Phillips noted that it is important to know who has the disease so that the country can manage community spread while people continue to self-isolate.

Sean Wormsbecke is an emergency doctor working at Royal Columbian Hospital in BC. He says that he has sent multiple coronavirus cases home without providing testing, as a result of the guidelines he is required to follow.

“There isn’t currently a tracking system for those cases that don’t warrant admission to hospital,” he said, adding that he can’t be sure they’re positive for coronavirus. “But I’m seeing patients who have the exact same symptom profile, in terms of how they describe their cough, how they describe shortness of breath.”

He says people should be taking social distancing and self-isolation very seriously.

“I see those almost every shift and they don’t count towards the official tally,” Wormsbecke said. “There is a significant portion of these patients.”

As of March 28, close to two-thirds of Canadian coronavirus cases are connected to community spread, says the Public Health Agency of Canada.

“It’s more likely that if their friends and family know [a person] is positive they’re going to stay away,” he added. “And if you don’t have that information, then it’s likely there are going to be breaches of the self-isolation protocol.”

South Korea has been pointed out by global health experts as one of the only countries to contain the virus. The country only reported 89 new cases on Thursday, which is 11 cases less than the day before.

“They had very aggressive testing and they went after these cases and did very detailed contact tracing, including the use of cell phone and credit card data,” Phillips said.

In Canada, the country is gaining almost 1,000 new coronavirus cases daily. As of Thursday morning, 9,700 cases have been reported along with 110 deaths.

“We’re blowing right by South Korea,” Phillips noted. “We’re going to have way more cases.”

Over 255,00 people in Canada have been tested for coronavirus, which comes out to about 650 tests per 100,000. These numbers are far higher than the US and Italy though they are far lower than South Korea who tests at around 800 per capita.

Canadian Immunologist Dawn Bowdish noted that Canada was testing “aggressively” from January to February though it slowed when global supply chains slowed.

“In the very, very early days, we were on the higher end of average for testing,” she said. “At the time, most of our cases were travel-related or they were with contacts of people who had travelled.”

“At that point, compromises had to be made and I believe that our public health agencies are doing the best they can with what they have,” Bowdish added.

“One of the compromises is that we are not testing as widely as I’m sure everyone in public health would like.”

Public Health Agency of Canada president Tina Namiesniowski noted when speaking at the House of Commons committee earlier in the week that the federal government is attempting to speed up testing.

“We are working hard, collectively across the country, with all jurisdictions, to advance testing,” she said. “The National Microbiology Lab continues to support provinces and territories needing assistance with testing and other reference services.”

A $74 million investment in Canadian testing technology was also announced by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Ontario has received criticism for testing people at a slow rate. The province has been testing 350 people per 100,000—the slowest in Canada. Ontario also has close to 40 percent of the country's population.

During a press conference, Doug Ford said, “We are surging the system and testing as many people as possible. We need more kits to get out there, but it’s not as quick as we would like.”

Peter Phillips said, “We need to be testing aggressively and not just restricting it to those patients who are sick.”

“The overload of the medical system, intensive care units and the death toll associated with those sort of percentages are absolutely daunting.”