Demand spikes for COVID-19 tests as kids fight ‘potpourri of viruses’

December 3, 2021
Demand spikes for COVID-19 tests as kids fight 'potpourri of viruses'
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Children in Ottawa were tested for COVID-19 almost 20,000 times last month — more than three times the number in November 2020 — as families contend with what one local health official called a “potpourri of viruses” spreading through the community.

The Ottawa COVID-19 Testing Taskforce reported 19,858 children’s tests were processed last month at the city’s main testing site at Brewer Arena, compared to just over 6,000 in November 2020.

On Wednesday alone, more than 1,000 children’s tests were processed at Brewer, and officials say children now account for a “significant portion of testing demand.” 

The number of COVID-19 tests conducted on adults has remained fairly consistent at the Brewer site.

Viruses spreading earlier, more often

Children who attend daycare or school must get tested for COVID-19 if they have any of a number of cold- or flu-like symptoms.

At the same time, there are more viruses circulating this fall compared to last year, according to Tammy DeGiovanni, vice-president of clinical services at CHEO, eastern Ontario’s children’s hospital in Ottawa.

“I’ve described it as a potpourri of viruses that are circulating in the community right now,” said DeGiovanni.

These viruses are spreading more easily this fall in part because of the easing of public health restrictions, and because younger children’s immune systems are more susceptible now, she said.

“Kids weren’t as exposed to the regular viruses over the last few years. We know that that’s the first time that they will be experiencing them, and certainly that’s playing into the volumes,” said DeGiovanni.

Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) began to spread in the summer, which is earlier than normal, and CHEO has seen a record high number of patients in September, October and November.

WATCH | More kids being tested for COVID-19 amid rise in cold and flu symptoms 

More kids being tested for COVID-19 amid rise in cold and flu symptoms

Tammy DeGiovanni, vice-president of clinical services at CHEO, says the onset of respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) in children happened earlier this year and that many viruses are now spreading more easily as public health restrictions ease. 1:07

‘Not sustainable’ for parents

Hayley Price-Kelly said she’s lost count of how many times her children, ages two and four, have been tested for COVID-19. She said every day for the past three weeks, at least one of them has been home sick or awaiting test results.

Price-Kelly said the current demand on families with young children is “not sustainable.”

“Nobody is really acknowledging or talking about this burden, or giving a light at the end of the testing tunnel,” she said. “How many kids are we forcing to go through this when they just have normal bugs that frankly they probably should be getting?”

Price-Kelly’s children aren’t yet eligible for the pediatric COVID-19 vaccine, but she said she’s grateful those ages five to 11 can now get their first dose. She also wonders whether the pediatric vaccine will change the rules around testing and self-isolation for children.

Four-year-old Milo Kelly, left, and his sister Brynn Kelly, 2, have taken turns going for COVID-19 tests and staying home due to various illnesses this fall, according to their mom, Hayley Price-Kelly. (Submitted by Hayley Price-Kelly)

Testing access ‘extremely good’

DeGiovanni said she understands the frustration among parents with sick kids, and the impact on families. But she said access to testing for children in Ottawa is “extremely good,” and that helps with contact tracing.

She said take-home test kits from local schools and do-it-yourself kits available for pickup at Brewer Arena mean families can get children tested more quickly and easily than last fall.

Many parents faced hours-long lineups outside testing sites in 2020, and test results sometimes took days.

“Last fall we weren’t meeting the demand of everyone that needed tests, and now we are meeting that demand,” said DeGiovanni.

A child in Toronto gets a COVID-19 swab PCR test in her mouth and nose, which is a less invasive option for children than the nasal swab previously offered. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

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