What to know about coronavirus testing in Canada

A nurse and an employee demonstrate the smear test on a patient in the mobile ward of the Hermann Josef Hospital at Willy Stein Stadium. In the ward, citizens can be tested for the coronavirus. (Photo by Roberto Pfeil/picture alliance via Getty Images)

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If you’ve recently gotten sick and are concerned about whether you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus, there’s a few things to know about the testing process.

Protocol for coronavirus testing is determined by each province and territory. Many provinces are asking people who think they’re sick to first call their health care provider or 811, the public nurse’s line, in an attempt to minimize overcrowding of emergency rooms. Once on the line with a healthcare professional,  patients will be asked questions about recent travel, exposure history and the symptoms they’re experiencing. Based on that information, the person will either be told to stay at home or advised to seek medical attention. 

In Ontario and Quebec, specific testing centres are being set up at hospitals throughout the provinces. These centres are not drop-in and are only meant for people who’ve been determined to be at high risk of contracting the virus. Ontario is also in the early stages of setting up at-home testing. 

Dr. Mel Krajden is the medical director of BC Centre for Disease Control public health laboratory. He says it’s a challenge to create these testing processes compared to how patients would normally go about getting the health services they need. 

“Part of the problem is that we know that people who are exposed to COVID-19 will typically develop symptoms four to 12 days, but sometimes 14 days, after being exposed,” he tells Yahoo Canada. “What we’re trying to do is prevent people who don’t know they’re infected from transmitting to others.”

What to expect when you get tested

Once the patient’s been triaged and it’s determined they should be tested, they will be instructed to go to an emergency room or testing clinic where a nasal or throat swab will be administered to patients believed to be at risk of the virus. For patients who are severely ill and hospitalized, a lung test might be performed. 

The swab is then tested for the nucleic acid specific for COVID-19. The nucleic acid indicates that the virus is present but doesn’t necessarily mean that the person is still infectious.

“Once you get infected the virus can stick around for a while,” says Krajden. “Most of the standards of care is that if you clear the virus, it’s no longer detectable, then you can be released back into the community.

 The testing process is of no additional charge to Canadian patients, as it’s included in part of the country’s universal health insurance.

Krajden says the most important message is that if someone is sick, they should self-isolate. In order to lessen the strain on the healthcare system, the focus needs to be on the people who have other household members who are at risk: the elderly, people with underlying health conditions or people who work in health care or old age facilities.  

“It’s not about testing everybody,” he says. “It’s about trying to identify people to make sure that they know to stay home and self-quarantine if they’re not sick. If they are sick enough, they can go to the hospital.”