COVID-19 testing capacity in Ottawa pushed to limit; OPH urging symptomatic people to isolate

Ottawa Public Health is urging all residents who have any COVID-19 symptoms to assume they have contracted the virus and self-isolate, regardless of their vaccination status or rapid antigen test result.

This direction comes as testing capacity is overwhelmed in the face of the Omicron variant of concern. Testing centres were booked solid on Sunday.

A letter sent by OPH to doctors, nurse practitioners and clinicians Friday says there is not enough capacity to test everyone in a timely manner.

“Because of this unfortunate reality, OPH will be directing people with any symptoms of COVID-19 who are unable to access a timely COVID-19 test to assume that they are infected with Omicron and self-isolate immediately for 10 days from symptom-onset,” the health unit said. “Their household contacts, regardless of vaccination status, will also be directed to isolate.”

There has been a huge demand for rapid antigen tests, with the province handing out free kits at select locations. The Minto Barrhaven Recreation Centre at 3500 Cambrian Rd. will have the kits this coming week, according to the province.

However, OPH advises that anyone with symptoms should remain isolated, even if they test negative on a rapid test.

“Symptomatic individuals must self-isolate even if they test negative on a rapid antigen test as these tests can produce false negative results,” the health unit said.

OPH anticipates that testing capacity will need to be preserved for essential workers and to protect the most vulnerable sectors of society. In the meantime, Ottawa’s medical officer of health is asking residents to remain home when sick and continue to practice other pandemic control measures.

“We know we don’t need a test to protect others,” said Dr. Vera Etches in a statement on Friday. “If you have symptoms, you should assume you have COVID-19 and self-isolate. Similarly, your household members need to isolate regardless of your vaccination status.”

The Ottawa COVID-19 Testing Taskforce, which coordinates all COVID-19 testing in the city, said in a statement Sunday that Omicron and the need to redeploy staff to the vaccination effort have impacted testing capacity.

“Testing guidelines to date have focused on test and trace mechanisms to monitor and respond to COVID-19. With the Omicron variant and its heighted transmissibility, the growth of cases and contacts has now exceeded the ability of the testing centres and public health to continue to use this approach,” the statement said. “Staff and resources are also being urgently redeployed to ramp up vaccination. Vaccines are a critical defence against COVID-19, and the Ottawa COVID-19 Testing Taskforce is supportive of the approach to ensure as many Ontarians as possible get vaccinated.”

As of Monday, the Centretown, Sandy Hill, and Somerset West Community Health Centres will pause COVID-19 testing services as their staff and resources are redeployed to support the province’s mass vaccination and booster campaigns.

The taskforce said it is working to maintain as much testing capacity as possible.

“Staff at assessment centres and care clinics are continuing to work overtime to maintain testing operations for essential indications. Those essential indications include ruling out COVID-19 in health care workers, first responders and other essential workers critical to the core infrastructure of society,” the taskforce’s statement said.

“The Taskforce recognizes that these changes are very disruptive to everyone, especially during the holidays as families try to gather and celebrate. Further guidance and recommendations will be released shortly.”

Last week, OPH said the surge was also overwhelming its case and contact management system, meaning there is a significant delay in reaching out to high-risk contacts of people who have tested positive. The health unit has asked anyone who gets a positive result to tell their close contacts themselves.

Ottawa’s test positivity rate on Friday was 6.3 per cent, the highest it has been since the spring.

“If you have been tested and are waiting for test results, isolate until you receive a negative result. Do not attend school, sports or extracurricular activities while waiting for test results. Interacting with others, and not following public health guidance can have significant ripple impacts on others in the community,” Etches said.

OPH reported 333 new cases of COVID-19 on Sunday, the highest daily case count since early May. There are nearly 1,700 known active cases in the city. Five people are currently in hospital with an active case of COVID-19. There are zero COVID-19 patients in the ICU.

Most common symptoms of COVID-19

For adults (18 years and older) who are not considered high-risk contacts, you must get a COVID-19 test for the following symptoms even if you are fully vaccinated.

If you have one or more of these symptoms and you choose not to be tested, you must self-isolate for 10 days.

  • Fever and/or chills (Temperature of 37.8 degrees Celsius/100 degrees Fahrenheit or higher.)
  • Cough or barking cough (croup) (Continuous, more than usual, making a whistling noise when breathing (not related to asthma, post-infectious reactive airways, COPD).)
  • Shortness of breath (Out of breath, unable to breathe deeply (not related to asthma).)
  • Decrease or loss of taste or smell (Not related to seasonal allergies, neurological disorders.)
  • Muscle aches and pains (That is unexplained or unusual (not related to related to a sudden injury, fibromyalgia, or receiving a COVID-19 vaccine the past 48 hours).)
  • Extreme tiredness, lack of energy or feeling unwell (That is unusual or unexpected (not related to depression, insomnia, thyroid dysfunction, or receiving a COVID-19 vaccine in the past 48 hours).

Other symptoms of COVID-19

The following symptoms require COVID-19 testing if you have been identified as a high-risk contact, even if you are fully vaccinated.

If you have one or more of these symptoms you must self-isolate (I.e., you must stay home except for medical emergencies or to seek COVID-19 testing) for at least 24 hours until symptoms are improving.

If you have not been identified as a high-risk contact, you are still eligible to be tested, but it is not required to return to work or school.

  • Sore throat (Painful swallowing or difficulty swallowing (not related to seasonal allergies, acid reflux, post-nasal drip).)
  • Runny or stuffy/congested nose (Not related to seasonal allergies, being outside in cold weather, chronic sinusitis unchanged from baseline.)
  • Conjunctivitis (pink eye) (Not related to blepharitis, recurrent styes.)
  • Decreased or lack of appetite (Not related to anxiety, constipation.)
  • Abdominal pain (Persistent or ongoing (not related to menstrual cramps, gastroesophageal reflux disease)
  • Headache (New and persistent, unusual, unexplained, or long-lasting (not related to tension-type headaches, chronic migraines, receiving a COVID-19 vaccine in the last 48 hours).)

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