New Westminster virus testing centre has its hands full

Inside COVID test centre

Outside a retrofitted walk-in clinic, parked vehicles surround the block — nurses, firefighters and others thought to be exposed to COVID-19 or linked with an outbreak wait for masked aids to escort them into an exam room. 

On a bench in the hallway, a single masked patient waits to be admitted. Through two doors, Dr. Ali Okhowat of Coquitlam, the clinic’s physician lead, slides open a drawer inside a tiny exam room. Inside, sealed nasal-pharyngeal swab kits are scattered in two piles: blue for adults, red for children. 

“The loads here are just… We can't keep up,” Dr. Okhowat said from behind several layers of personal protective equipment. “Now we're finding a lot of [gastrointestinal] symptoms are coming back, like diarrhea, for example, coming back as COVID-positive.”

The seven-day-a-week testing centre, across the street from Royal Columbian Hospital, has become an important facility for those exhibiting symptoms of the novel coronavirus, and a focal point of a new virtual triage system that has been rolled out across Coquitlam, Port Coquitlam, Port Moody and New Westminster.

The clinic opened March 16 and, within the first week, the family physician said there was a massive surge of people looking to get tested. By March 29, nearly 500 patients had walked through the clinic doors, although the Fraser Northwest Division of Family Practice Society, which leads the effort, is forbidden to disclose how many have tested positive for the coronavirus.

Following provincial mandates, the clinic targets its testing to front line medical workers and first responders. Outside of those deemed “essential,” doctors there can also test high-risk individuals such as pregnant women, care home residents or those linked to an active transmission chain or outbreak cluster.

“[Front line workers] are terrified to be a vector,” said Dr. Okhowat. “[We’re] just trying to ensure first responders and front line health care workers aren’t transmitting the virus among themselves.”

But while the clinic is restricted in who it tests for COVID-19, it has also opened up its doors to the public in other, more experimental ways.

By early March, clinics and family physicians across the Tri-Cities were struggling to manage a flood of patients exhibiting COVID-19-like symptoms, even as the supply of personal protective equipment — masks, surgical gowns, gloves and plastic face shields — ran dry. To protect their staff, many family physicians and walk-in clinics made the agonizing decision to close their doors.

“There were a lot of doctors and nurses testing people without equipment, going on leave because of exposure,” said Kristan Ash, the executive director of FNWD. “They put themselves at risk. And that’s horrible.”

At the same time, people are desperate, Ash added.

“People are stealing from hospitals. We’ve had people walking into doctors officers yelling and screaming for masks. A lady stole hand sanitizer from a clinic the other day, pumping it into a plastic bag,” she said. “I stood there and I looked at her and said to myself, ‘Do I stop her? But if you’re that bold and that desperate…”

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