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Aug. 3, 2020 | Monday
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COVID-19: Hydro execs pitch plan for widespread COVID testing, lab in NOTL
Jim Ryan is chair of the NOTL Hydro board. (Supplied)

The prime minister wants more people tested for COVID-19. The premier says anyone who fears they might have been exposed to the virus should get tested immediately. Medical and science experts say more testing and tracking of the disease is crucial.

One big question is whether there is enough lab capacity to speedily handle the volume of testing the province requires – and the answer is, not yet.

Jim Ryan and Tim Curtis, two executives with Niagara-on-the-Lake Hydro, have an idea that they think can help solve that problem.

They have proposed converting part of the old NOTL hospital into a not-for-profit, state-of-the-art testing facility to process test results for thousands of people in Niagara – and ultimately – from around Ontario.

Test locations would be set up all around the region and the goal is to have it all up and running by September.

It’s a tall order but one the two men believe can be accomplished. They have submitted their business plan to the provincial government and have invited both Premier Doug Ford and Health Minister Christine Elliott to visit Niagara to see how the concept could work.

Both Ryan, chair of NOTL Hydro, and Curtis, CEO of the utility, emphasize their real goal is more testing and tracking of the virus and not just of people who are displaying symptoms. Opening a lab is just a way of ensuring more tests can be processed.

And while they are spearheading this proposal in Niagara, they also say they simply want to make sure it comes to fruition, even if some other organization ultimately is the one to do it.

The continued number of new COVID-19 cases, insufficient testing and warm weather inspiring people to get out, be sociable and get back to work are three major problems the province must deal with, notes Curtis.

And “systematic, aggressive testing and tracking is the only way to meet these three issues. This creates the need for more lab capacity,” he said.

Ryan said there is both a social and economic need to act fast.

“We’ve got to broaden testing, if we are to open up,” he said in an interview. “And our fear is if we let this window between now and the next flu season pass without getting the resources in place to do that we’ll be in another lockdown and, quite frankly, I’m not sure the economy can withstand another lockdown.”

The hydro executives, both with strong business backgrounds, said their plan is about helping both the economy and the community.

One thing that stuck “in my craw,” Ryan said, was that “it was quite clear very early on there was a problem in long-term care facilities and, despite that, there was no proactive stance to visit all long-term care and test people” unless there were positive cases.

He doesn’t want to see that repeated.

Ryan was the instigator of the idea and it gained momentum after the NOTL Hydro board unanimously backed it. The proposal also received support from Niagara regional council last week.

Curtis will be seconded to oversee launch of the project if the group gets the go-ahead from the province.

Niagara-on-the-Lake Lord Mayor Betty Disero and Mayor Jim Diodati of Niagara Falls have both been supportive of the project. 

Disero said she thinks it is “great” for two reasons. “One, a fast turnaround of tests taken in the region, as the transportation issues are removed which have been a problem and second because I see this as a good economic development project for the region.”

Ryan and Curtis “have no personal financial interest (in the project), they just want to make sure we do not get overlooked by the province,” Disero said.

And while Niagara Health CEO Dr. Tom Stewart said he has not examined all the details of the plan, he said he is “a fan of more testing,” adding that follow-up and contact tracing are crucial.

In developing their plan, Ryan said they have consulted with multiple experts to fine-tune and focus the project, including Norgen Biotek in Thorold and KPMG, the consulting firm designated by the province to help develop a testing strategy.

He said when they told KPMG they planned to do at least 5,000 tests a day and maybe as many as double that, the consultants asked whether the Niagara project could handle 20,000 tests daily. The answer: given sufficient provincial funding that would not be a problem, Ryan said.

Right now, there isn’t adequate testing capability in Ontario, “let alone within Niagara Region,” he said. As far as Ryan knows, no actual lab testing is currently done in the region and swabs often are shipped out to Hamilton or Toronto. (Niagara Region public health said it has no details on where lab tests are done as many health care providers are involved in collecting samples.)

To be most effective, turnaround time for testing needs to be quick, Curtis said. “To do what we are promoting we need a 24-hour turnaround time.”

With so many hotels, restaurants and other service industries across Niagara, Ryan said, “They need proactive testing so that they can go to their staff and their customers and say, ‘Look we get tested every seven days, or whatever the number is, we’re COVID-free.’ ”

In addition, businesses would collect information on customers so if there is a COVID-19 outbreak, contact testing will be much quicker. Ryan envisions a similar approach working in the manufacturing and other sectors too.

Such a process might prevent future lockdowns, he said.

“We hope for a silver bullet, a vaccine, or something that mitigates this but that’s a bad bet at this stage of the game. So we’re saying, “Let’s have the processes in place, the lab capability to move forward.’ ”

Because they’re starting from scratch, “The one benefit we think we have is we don’t have any invested infrastructure. Whatever structure they want us to use, that’s the structure we’ll put in place,” Ryan said.

The testing equipment they plan to use would be adaptable so it could be used to test for other viruses in the future.

“The lab is a means to the end. Our goal is what can we do to get real aggressive tracking and testing here in Niagara,” Curtis said.

Boosting lab capacity in Ontario, is the best thing that could come out of this, Ryan said. “The second-best thing would be to have part of that capacity in the Niagara region simply because it creates a good economic opportunity.”

It would create jobs, including for younger people, and he believes “we have the quality of people in this region who would operate that facility at the highest standard and deliver what the province wants out of labs. I’m convinced we could put together the people who would do that.”

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