OPINION | Bring back the bus: why Montreal needs to restart mobile COVID-19 testing

    Why Montreal needs to restart mobile COVID-19 testing

    Avleen K Mokha

    Mobile testing clinics were one of the innovative ways Montreal increased COVID-19 testing. In April, testing was vital when outbreaks in hospitals and senior homes passed on to the employees’ communities. The city turned buses into mobile testing sites so health officials could gain a better idea of how the virus was spreading.

    However, by late June Montreal stopped using the testing clinics, saying that such temporary measures were for the height of the crisis. But as the province has loosened measures, the city is seeing an uptick of cases. Recent outbreaks in bars and restaurants show that the virus is well present in the community.

    Although the city is calling on bar patrons and staff to get tested, a question remains – how easy is it to get tested? And while the province set a target of 14,000 tests a day, it has only hit that number three times. Most days, under 7,000 tests are happening.

    Bringing back mobile testing clinics would be in the city’s best interests. This tactic has its problems, but mobile testing helped residents get tested in the familiar environment of their neighborhood.

    Crucially, the bus clinics removed two crucial barriers: language and accessibility.

    For example, in Park Extension, COVID-19 updates were delayed as community groups translated information for the district’s multilingual population. Often, Park Extension residents relied on each other to hear the latest information in their native languages.

    For example, many residents flocked to the testing site outside Parc metro after district councillor Mary Deros went on Greek and South Asian radio programs. The media campaign successfully encouraged many residents to get tested. In fact, the mobile unit recorded the highest number of daily tests when it visited Park Extension in late May.

    Equally important, the bus clinic helped the most vulnerable groups of the community, including seniors with limited mobility. Although the science on COVID-19 changes quickly, we learned early on that being older increased the risk of complications. Not all seniors can travel long distances to get tested, and not all can access caregivers who can call to set up a testing appointment elsewhere in the city.

    Likewise, accessibility is an issue for families. Especially for parents with young children, the time spent travelling to a hospital adds up – and that’s after one of them stays home to watch the kids. Mobile testing reduces the time parents spend travelling and waiting in line. And if the clinic is located close to home, parents can also bring along the young ones.

    The recent surge in cases comes from large indoor gatherings, or from places like bars where people violated physical distancing and avoided wearing masks – the two key recommendations by public health experts.

    The city’s testing strategy needs to involve more than suggestions to be effective. Yes, come get tested, but where and how? The barriers to testing which existed a few weeks ago still exist today.

    If anything, the return of mobile testing will remind people that this summer is not meant to be typical. Quebec premier Francois Legault has noted the situation down south, where the U.S. is seeing a sharp rise in cases after many states reopened too early.

    However, the removal of testing sites – along with the reopening of businesses – may have given a false sense of security to many residents. If we truly want to learn from the U.S., we need to act with the same sense of urgency that we had in the early days of the pandemic.

    Montreal especially should be cautious. After all, the city carries the heavy weight of over three thousand deaths due to the virus – many of which could have been avoided if the administration had acted sooner. Restarting the bus clinics would show that the government wants what is best for the safety of their citizens.

    A version of this story appears in the June 17 print issue for Parc-Extension News.

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