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UHNBC now processing COVID-19 specimens, test turnaround times improving in Northern Health

Close to 3,000 tests have been performed in the authority to date
Peace River South MLA Mike Bernier (top left), Northern Health CEO and President Cathy Ulrich (top right), Stikine MLA Doug Donaldson (bottom left) and Interim Cheif Health Officer of Northern Health Dr. Raina Fumerton (bottom right). (via screenshot)

It was a night full of information for northern B.C. residents during a Government of B.C. virtual townhall with government officials and health officials from Northern Health. 

Stikine MLA Doug Donaldson, Peace River South MLA Mike Bernier as well as Northern Health CEO Cathy Ulrich and Interim Chief Medical Officer Dr. Raina Fumerton fielded questions and provided information to the public based on questions sent in.

Popular questions during the night included testing procedures, testing results, antibody studies and why community information is not named when case numbers are announced within Northern Health. 

One of the first questions from the public was around the north's testing strategy and why the authority isn't offering testing to those who are sick and call their number. 

"As you know, the testing strategy has had to change over time due to the circumstances at different times and what we've been able to accommodate in terms of surge capacity and capacity in our labs," Dr. Fumerton said.

"At this point in time, I'm really pleased to be able to say that we have the capacity to broaden our testing strategy. That was not the case initially in who we tested and there was good reason for that.

"Now, we have the ability to test more broadly for British Columbians who has a cold, flu or COVID like symptoms can be assessed to get a COVID test from a physician or nurse practitioner. Health care providers can order a COVID test for any patient based on their clinical judgment." 

She also reminded residents that not everyone displaying symptoms will need a COVID test and stressed again it will be the medical officials' discretion whether a test is given. 

In terms of test time turnaround, Ulrich says the timeframe has been improved to get faster results. 

"In the north, we have done a lot of work to decrease the transfer time from when the specimen is taken, to getting it down to the labs in Vancouver," she explained.

"We've now got air transport out of Fort St. John, Terrace and Prince George which has really expedited the turnaround time." 

In a large announcement for the north, Ulrich said that the University Hospital of Northern B.C. (UHNBC) is now able to process specimens as of this week. 

Officials are looking to add more similar capacity in Fort St. John and Terrace. 

When it comes to antibodies, Fumerton says testing will become available, but it will take months from now before they can be able to do so, as the BC Centre for Disease Control is conducting studies in Vancouver. 

"There is a lot of active work being done as we speak at the BC Centre for Disease Control," she said.

"So that is actively being worked on and there will be some initial pilot studies done to test that technology. It will probably be a couple of months out to be able to offer that more broadly to the population.

"And while we wouldn't need to be able to test every resident of British Columbia, there will be a strategic method." 

Perhaps the most common question among residents, especially in northern B.C., is why specific communities are not named when results are released, which Fumerton explained a few weeks ago relates to privacy reasons and only if a community outbreak happened and residents needed to know. 

"I recognize across many jurisdictions and across Canada, different approaches have been taken in this regard," Fumerton explained.

"In B.C., we've made the decision that we will be reporting at least this point in time, our numbers are relatively low throughout regions in the north that we're reporting the total number of lab-confirmed cases at the health authority level only." 

She adds the only way community numbers could be released is if they needed to declare an outbreak at long-term care facilities or within a community. There are currently no outbreaks in long-term care homes in the Northern Health Authority.

"The other reason we would provide information at a community level is if there was an event where our public health came in contact and our follow-up team was unable to identify all of the necessary people in order to ensure that they are taking the appropriate precautions and awareness that they need to have. A good example of that would be something like the dental conference that occurred in in the lower mainland." 

At the time of this publication (10:30 a.m., April 23) there have been 2,687 tests done in the northern health region. 

The region has a total of 40 recorded test-positive cases, of which 32 have recovered, leaving eight active cases. 

Fumerton also explained while people may see a smaller number of tests being completed compared to other health authorities, she said it would make logical sense because we have a smaller population and less tests have been performed. 

As for current restrictions at all Northern Health facilities, Ulrich also clarified that these policies will not be lifted until Dr. Bonnie Henry and provincial officers say it is safe to do so. 

Prior to the start of the townhall last night, Donaldson took the first few moments to thank those in B.C. that are following proper protocols and celebrating health care workers each night with 7 p.m. appreciation tours. 

"Many of you I know use the seven o'clock period and we're just cheering for our healthcare heroes to nurses, to doctors and care aids," Donaldson said.

"And to all of those working tirelessly to keep us safe. In my rural area, I go to the balcony and I can faintly hear the drums in the distance and the pots but the drums especially."

Bernier then followed up a message to British Columbians. 

"I know it's been hard for a lot of people," he said.

"Whether you've lost your job, whether you're in a business that's had to close down. It could be something like missing your grandchildren like me when you're used to having physical contact with them all of the time and having to step away right now to make sure everyone is staying safe. So I want to thank you, all of you like Doug did. Everybody taking those extra steps to make sure we're flattening the curve." 

Fumerton and Ulrich had previously spoken with reporters on April 4, 2020.

Ulrich, a northern B.C. resident since 1986, also expressed her thanks to all of those on the frontlines helping fight against the virus. 

"I just want to take the opportunity to really thank the staff," she said.

"The physicians, nurse practitioners and managers within Northern Health for an extraordinary amount of work that they've undertaken over this last six weeks to two months. It's been quite extraordinary and I do want to take this opportunity to thank them." 

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