COVID-19 testing in Ottawa is a disaster for vulnerable residents

OPINION: The mayor says residents should walk or get a ride to overburdened testing centres. That’s not an option for everyone, and it’s putting people with disabilities — and those without cars — at risk
By Sarah Trick - Published on Sep 29, 2020
People line up outside the COVID-19 Assessment Centre at Brewer Park Arena in Ottawa on March 13. (Justin Tang/CP)

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On Saturday morning, my personal-care attendant texted to let me know she had a sore throat and wouldn’t be coming to work that evening. Fair enough, except that she had worked the previous night, so whatever she has, whether it be COVID-19 or some more benign fall bug, I likely have, too. I use a wheelchair and need home care to perform the most basic activities in my daily life, so this is a constant stress for me. If it turns out that my attendant has COVID-19 — and that therefore I was exposed — I will need to take certain precautions to make sure I can continue to receive home care, starting with getting a test myself. The problem: I have virtually no way to access one. And I’m not the only one: seven months into the pandemic, there is still no testing site in downtown Ottawa, where my attendant and I both live. At time of writing, because of a lack of transportation, neither she nor I has been tested.

The disorganized, chaotic nature of Ottawa’s testing situation has made national headlines in recent weeks. People had been lining up in the wee hours of the morning at Brewer Park, the city’s main testing site, only to be turned away before the site even opened. Reports show that the situation has improved in recent days, thanks to the province’s decision to restrict testing to the categories that had been prioritized earlier in the pandemic. But even if you’re eligible for a test under the new restrictions (as I am), there’s still the issue of how to get one. The City of Ottawa asks that residents not rely on public transit to travel to get a test. For many of us living downtown, public transit is the only transportation option. Getting a ride to a test is physically impossible for me, and rideshares are out of reach financially for many. There are also moral considerations: Can one really justify potentially exposing an Uber or taxi driver to the virus?

For Kenzie McCurdy, the answer was no. McCurdy uses a wheelchair and is in quarantine while experiencing symptoms of COVID-19. She says this is her third time self-quarantining: she has no viable ways to access testing, as all rely on the help of another person. “None of those options are really great for the other person who I might be infecting,” she says, adding that if she were to wheel herself to Brewer Park, it would take her two hours each way — a trip that would be difficult to manage under normal circumstances, let alone while sick. According to McCurdy, Ottawa Public Health told her there was no safe option for her to get a test and that she should just stay home. (OPH declined to comment for this story. More on that later.)

The Ottawa Neighbourhood Study released a report on September 28 that maps the city’s cases based on where they live. The data show that the neighbourhoods with the highest concentration of cases are those where residents have lower incomes and tend to rely more on public transit. So why are the city’s testing centres so focused on drive-in options?

I decided to try to find out. First, I wanted to hear what Mayor Jim Watson had to say. On his Twitter feed, the mayor has made multiple references to working on getting a downtown testing site in place. This, he says, is being done in partnership with the Ottawa Hospital, which is managing the city’s testing sites. I reached out to the mayor’s office to ask what this partnership entails and what progress has been made. Watson declined to comment and referred me to the Ottawa Hospital. I also reached out to Ottawa Public Health, which also referred me to the hospital. Then, it seems, the hospital and Ottawa Public Health deliberated for a day over who would send me boilerplate stating that the lack of a testing site was not their responsibility — or that it was their responsibility, and they took it very seriously.

The answer? No one. The hospital referred me back to Ottawa Public Health, which in turn referred me to the province. The Ministry of Health declined to respond. It referred me to Ontario Health, the province’s consolidated health agency. 

A spokesperson for Ontario Health told me via email that "in planning how best to support testing in the downtown and the city as a whole," public health, hospitals, health-service providers, and the municipality "are looking at several factors including underserviced areas, vulnerable populations, hot spots, transportation, and the coming winter months." They pointed to recent pop-up testing in some Ottawa schools and communities, overflow support for assessment centres, and the Ottawa Inner City Health’s mobile clinic: "Ontario Health is continuing to work with partners to monitor access to testing in Ottawa, taking into account people’s experiences with the assessment centres, pop-ups and mobile clinic."

Everyone involved in this crisis is undoubtedly incredibly busy, and I try to be understanding. I only wish the city and province would extend the same consideration to its downtown residents and to anyone without access to a car — especially disabled people, who have among the highest risk of severe outcomes from the virus and who have been left out of planning, response, and prioritization at every turn.

Self-isolation orders have never not been in effect for those of us at high risk. We can’t get tested for the virus, despite being part of the population that arguably most needs to know whether we have been infected. Resources have not been put behind the testing that would help determine whether we are safe to move about: all we’ve gotten is the promise of a $5,000 fine for every day we have symptoms and break isolation.

It’s clear the city needs more testing. Yet, last night, the Ottawa Citizen reported that it may soon be getting less. According to a memo the paper obtained, testing centres have been directed to reduce the number of tests they administer, because provincial labs don’t have the necessary capacity. (A spokesperson for the Ministry of Health denied these claims.)

There may be a perfectly reasonable explanation for why the testing sites are the way they are. There may be a perfectly reasonable explanation for why no one is willing to give me — or anyone else — answers about testing sites. I am not alleging any sort of sinister conspiracy. I will, however, say this: whatever is going on here, communication around testing has been an abject failure on all fronts and at all levels of government. I, unlike many people in my situation, have access to communications professionals, and it’s my job to follow news about the pandemic. If I can’t figure out what on Earth I’m supposed to do, how is anyone else supposed to keep themselves and one another safe?

If the city’s hands are truly tied, it needs to say so. This abrogation of responsibility is not good enough. Dismissive, flippant tweets from Watson saying that everyone should walk or get a ride to Brewer Park or Moodie is not good enough. If our strategy is “test and trace” and there’s limited access to either testing or tracing, people will die needlessly, in Ottawa and throughout the province. The value of human life should not be measured by access to a car. Ottawa’s coronavirus response needs to reflect that.

This article has been updated with comment from Ontario Health.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.

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