Island Health teams took swift action to offer COVID-19 testing across Vancouver Island


When the COVID-19 pandemic started to  progress in British Columbia in mid-March, Island Health took swift action to develop COVID testing clinics, with key Island Health staff setting up Vancouver Island’s very first clinic at the Victoria Public Health Unit within three days.

“We initially tested people in our multipurpose room where patients would enter through one door and exit through another,” says Connie Haselden, Manager with Island Health’s public health team. “A few days later, we moved to an outdoor drive-through testing space in the parking lot that continues to be very effective.”

With provincial testing criteria changing almost daily, within weeks Island Health staff constructed more testing clinics across the Island, eventually opening 14 sites. Whether they are drive-through clinics where patients wait in their cars to be tested, or sites like the one at Cowichan District Hospital (CDH) where patients are invited to enter a building for their test, Island Health nurses clad from head to foot in personal protective equipment continue to administer thousands of nasopharyngeal swab tests for COVID-19 across Vancouver Island. 

“We are really learning from one another right now, “ says Christine Urquhart, a public health nurse at the drive-through testing clinic on Grant Avenue in Nanaimo. “Team work is incredibly important at the testing sites – we’re pulling together and supporting one another out here.”

Janeen Kidd helped to set up testing sites at CDH and the Peninsula Health Unit. As with project managers planning for other testing sites, she worked closely with staff from facilities management, capital planning, housekeeping, infection control, occupational health and safety, information management and information technology, scheduling and a host of other Island Health departments to quickly transform their ambitious plans into a reality.

“In addition to ensuring we had the staffing in place to run the sites, we had to order supplies, coordinate housekeeping services, determine a cycle for transporting swabs to and from the lab in a timely manner, and anticipate and assign countless other tasks,” says Kidd. “It was an exciting, intense, unpredictable and ever evolving process.”

During those early days, the Victoria Public Health Unit was overwhelmed by phone calls, receiving up to 1000 calls and 300 voicemail messages per day. That’s when the idea for a COVID-19 call centre, similar to 811 but specifically focused on COVID symptoms, was sparked. On April 14, call centre staff - registration clerks and screening nurses, many of them redeployed from other jobs or retired, all working remotely from their homes – began receiving calls.

“In partnership with Telus, we’ve been able to remove pressure from the testing sites, instead allowing a centralized call centre to take on that work,” says Sheila Leadbetter, Executive Director, Island Health Geography 2 who is also responsible for the testing sites and the call centre. 

“It was a lot to get the call centre up and running, but so rewarding. I’ve also been very impressed by the camaraderie of the call centre staff. These people are working remotely, never meeting in person, and have developed such an incredible and supportive team.”

The call centre provides three functions. First, callers are registered by creating an encounter that is attached to that person’s Island Health electronic health record. They are then connected to a nurse who collects information about possible COVID-19 exposure, travel, contacts, and symptoms. If the caller does have COVID-19 symptoms, they are scheduled for testing at one of the sites. Typically, a project of this magnitude would take several months to coordinate and achieve, however the COVID call centre was up and running within four weeks.

“This experience has demonstrated to me that our teams can pull together very quickly, working across programs and portfolios to achieve results,” says Leadbetter. “The challenge now is to create a sustainability plan as we move through the next several months of opening up the economy while we wait for a vaccine to be developed.”