Extendicare Falconbridge

COVID-19 Testing Program Marks One Year of Making Long-Term Care Homes Safer

By Dr. Matthew Morgan

So much can change in a year. The same can be said for what we think we know over the course of a few short months.

Early in the first wave, by March 2020, COVID-19 was spreading in long-term care communities. By April, the experiences and outbreaks occurring inside homes signalled that the virus could spread asymptomatically. It was clear that we needed new tools in addition to our screening and IPAC practices.

One year ago today, Extendicare launched a pilot program to conduct PCR testing with all long-term care staff, on a weekly to twice monthly basis, starting with five homes. With significant progress shown in controlling the spread of COVID-19 within the first month, the program was in place in homes across our network.

By the first week of July, all homes in Ontario were onboarded to similar programs.

There was no roadmap at the time for a testing program of this frequency or magnitude. How would we get the tests to homes? What kind of personnel and training would be needed to administer the tests? How would labs handle the influx of tests and turn results around fast enough to mitigate a potential outbreak? How would our frontline care providers, already under tremendous stress, embrace weekly testing?

It took forward thinking and a huge amount of effort on the part of our COVID Operations team — our Central Testing Team, Results Team, Occupational Health and Safety and dozens of others — in collaboration with Ontario Health, Dynacare and Public Health Ontario Laboratory Services, to build this project from the ground up.

None of this would have been possible without our team members on the front line, who came out week after week for their swabs to help maintain the safety of their homes and the people they care for. We owe them a huge debt of gratitude.

A year later, we are marking the anniversary of this program — with more than 285,000 Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) tests conducted as well as 280,000 rapid tests — and the huge impact it has had in helping to keep our residents and team members safe since it first launched.

Today, the program has expanded to other jurisdictions, in alignment with the regulatory requirements in each province. As COVID-19 testing policy in Canada evolved, it laid the groundwork for the rapid testing program we later piloted at Extendicare Kingston, Port Hope and Cobourg, and now also in place in all long-term care homes across Ontario. This rapid testing program has administered additional 280,000-plus rapid tests have been administered to our team members, essential caregivers and designated family visitors.

I’m proud to say we were among the first long-term care operators in Canada to take on a program of this nature, test its effects in curbing transmission to vulnerable residents. From the outset of the program, the team has been sharing our on-the-ground results with government and health system partners, to help evolve the testing framework in use today. The size of our network, and support and collaboration of our Assist partner homes, enabled us to ramp up and expand fast enough to have a demonstrable impact on the health and safety of long-term care residents in Ontario prior to the onset of the second wave.

Testing isn’t a silver bullet. We knew that at the outset. But any outbreak avoided, or curbed in severity, is one that I am thankful for. We know that testing has had a real impact on the safety of the people we are entrusted to care for, and the people who love them.

Vaccination rates across communities are continually on the rise. And soon, hopefully, the threat of COVID-19 will become a thing of the past. Before we had vaccinations to protect the people in long-term care, we had this testing program. It made a difference then, and it continues to today.

Until the pandemic fully subsides, our efforts to protect our residents, clients and communities will not waver. We remain steadfast on building back stronger and creating a brighter future.