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COVID-19 testing clinic to open in Port Coquitlam amid concerns of second wave

The clinic will open for testing Monday, June 15
Dr. Ali Okhowat of Coquitlam prepares a pharyngeal swab kit at a COVID-19 clinic in New Westminster.
Dr. Ali Okhowat of Coquitlam prepares a pharyngeal swab kit at a COVID-19 clinic in New Westminster. Okhowat, who has played a key role in launching the clinic, says the move to Port Coquitlam comes amid a continued need to maintain testing capacity in preparation for a second wave of COVID-19.

A COVID-19 testing clinic serving the Tri-Cities has relocated to Port Coquitlam at a time doctors say the region needs to be building capacity for a potential second wave.

The clinic was previously housed in a medical building opposite Royal Columbian Hospital in New Westminster.  But as caseloads have gone down, that facility is looking to get back to normal operations, triggering doctors from the Fraser Northwest Division of Family Health to scramble for an alternative last week. 

The Port Coquitlam clinic will still receive support from Fraser Health in the form of personal protective equipment, and while next week doctors appear to be without Fraser Health-supplied nurses, they are working with the health authority to maintain that staffing, according to Dr. Ali Okhowat, the leading physician at the centre. 

“The risk of something spiking again is very real. And we should have systems in place when that second wave hits,” said Okhowat. “It’s just a question of whose available as everyone goes back to work.”

Should a second wave come — something provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry has also said is very likely — Okhowat warned that Eagle Ridge and Royal Columbian Hospital could see spikes of people with COVID-19 symptoms, exactly the kind of situation the clinic is designed to prevent if and when they’re needed.

With a vaccine still out of reach, preparation for a second wave of the virus is happening at several levels across the province. Earlier this month, the Minister of Health Adrian Dix announced the government has stockpiled three million masks in the event the virus returns. Meanwhile, they will be used to resume elective surgeries.

But clearing that backlog of surgeries has also rested on local COVID-19 testing sites. Patients waiting for thyroid, cancer as well as upper head and neck surgeries are often tested at the clinic and put into isolation until they’re moved into the operating room. 

And while there’s a risk the new centre won’t make ends meet, Okhowat is not the only doctor to say it’s an experiment worth running. 

Family physicians from across the Tri-Cities have overwhelmingly supported keeping the COVID-19 testing clinic local, even if it means that doctors face a significant pay cut.

In a recent survey, over 90% of doctors from around the Tri-Cities and New Westminster supported keeping the clinic running in lieu of directing patients further afield to testing sites in places like Maple Ridge or Surrey. 

Part of that support comes from the fact that, unlike the drive-thru testing centres where patients stay in the car and get a quick swab, the Tri-Cities clinic thoroughly evaluates patients in a way that maximizes the chance of catching health complications or something like Kawasaki disease, an auto-immune response which has been linked to infections from the novel coronavirus. 

“A lot of little kids coming in with upper respiratory symptoms,” said Okhowat. “A family physician sent one to us the other day and wanted their cough evaluated — we checked the ears, nose, lungs and for pneumonia.” 

Okhowat and his colleagues can refer patients back to their family doctor or escalate their case to an emergency room if need be, something the drive-thru testing centre in nearby Burnaby can’t do.

Even when patients have tested negative, the face-to-face consultations have allowed the clinic to permanently link up roughly 15% of the people they see — patients who never had their own doctor — with a family physician.

The new Tri-Cities COVID-19 & Influenza-Like Illness Assessment Clinic opens for the first time Monday, June 15, at 9 a.m. It is housed at the Integrated Wellness Medical Centre in Port Coquitlam near the corner of Lougheed Highway and Shaughnessy Street (2099 Lougheed Highway, Unit A120).

Patients do not need a referral to attend the clinic, and while walk-in visits are accepted, doctors ask that you make an appointment by calling 236-996-9000. The clinic will be open Monday to Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.