With each COVID-19 test completed in Ontario a disturbing trend is becoming clear. The percentage growth of positive tests is creeping up, the percentage growth of negative tests is going down, a Star analysis of the last 12 days of provincial data shows.
The Star has also found that while Ontario is ramping up the number of samples taken, the number of “pending test results” — samples collected and awaiting a test — is growing dramatically, an indication the testing system continues to be overwhelmed.
Every day, the provincial health ministry publishes a simple set of data. Ontario’s data is much more detailed than other provinces and allows for a window into the developing pandemic.
There are five data points published each day in Ontario: Positive (confirmed) tests; negative tests; tests for which the results are pending; resolved cases where a confirmed patient now tests negative; and people who have died.
The Star now has 12 days of this daily data update (the provincial health ministry will not provide the earlier data) and it is possible to extrapolate some important findings.
As of Friday, 19,511 Ontario residents had been swabbed with an approved test kit over the past six weeks. These swabs, of nose and mouth, are done either at public health testing sites or a hospital.
Of those 19,511 swabs taken, only 14,026 have been tested as of Friday. (Information on those results below).
That means only 72 per cent of the current samples in the testing pipeline had been tested as of Friday. One week before, 89 per cent of the samples taken by that day had been tested. The Star’s analysis shows the percentage of tests completed each day is steadily dropping, which is not surprising as Ontario is collecting more samples at a time when the laboratory system is strained to the maximum.
Christine Nielsen, CEO of the Canadian Society for Medical Laboratory Science (her members across the country are lab technologists and lab assistants), said prior to COVID-19, laboratories were conducting 440 million tests each year.
“It is all consuming,” Nielsen said, describing the job lab technicians are facing with the additional pressure of the pandemic.
The Star’s review of Ontario data reveals a small but steady daily increase in the likelihood of a completed laboratory test finding COVID-19. Twelve days ago (looking at the completed tests in the province) 1.43 per cent of completed tests were positive for the virus. Friday, that was 2.2 per cent and that trend upward has continued. The Star is monitoring these trends on a daily basis.
Corresponding to that increase in positive tests is the steady drop in percentage of completed tests that are negative. Twelve days ago 98.57 per cent of completed tests were negative. Friday, it was 97.8 per cent. Again, the trend continues.
And for the 11th straight day, none of the known (confirmed) patients were listed in the provincial data as recovered. Public Health Ontario only lists patients as recovered or “resolved” if the individual has had two consecutive negative tests over 24 hours.
Previously, the Star reported there is a lag of four to seven days in completing tests, which means provincial leaders and the public are making decisions based on old information. Senior officials at the Public Health Ontario Laboratory told the Star this week their labs (which do the majority of tests) are experiencing up to a four-day delay. The Star has interviewed people who went for tests and were told they would have a five- to seven-day wait. Public Health Ontario Laboratory officials told the Star they are making efforts to reduce the lag in testing.
One clarification that laboratory experts who have spoken to the Star want to make relates to the number of “tests” completed. Premier Doug Ford announced Friday that Ontario had done almost 3,000 tests in the previous 24 hours.
“That is not true,” a technician said, pointing out that what Ford was actually referring to was the number of samples taken in that 24-hour time period. As the Star’s data review shows, 1,347 tests were completed in that time frame.
Going forward, laboratory officials say the challenge is to increase capacity at public health, hospital and possibly private testing labs. The national laboratory society’s Nielsen said it is possible that retired lab technicians, or those working in other fields, would be pressed into service. The hitch is they will need to redo their accreditation if it has lapsed.
“With each test we have to make absolutely sure we are right,” said Nielsen, a lab technologist herself.
“There is always the risk of releasing bad data,” said Nielsen, reflecting on the importance of having highly qualified professionals and the best equipment available.
Kevin Donovan can be reached at email@example.com or 416-312-3503.