NEOMO was the first lab in Northern Ontario supported by Public Health Ontario to apply for a virology license from Ontario Health. Reena Dhatt, MD, CCFP, FCFP, talked with Northern Ontario Business about NEOMO’s fight in the battle against COVID-19.
“We started as a full medical practice with nine physicians, two physician assistants, two nurses, six admin, six support staff, and 17,000 patients,” Dr. Dhatt explains. “Since April of 2020, we began working for our community as a satellite COVID assessment centre. Here we learned a tremendous amount about COVID management including patient management and guideline application. This experience was critical to help us design our COVID platform to help Northern industries prepare for the pandemic.”
Dr. Dhatt continues, “In April all the testing was through the public system, but by mid-October, due to increased symptomatic demand, there was reduced availability for asymptomatic testing which was critical in a workforce that was coming from all over the world to support local operations. As part of the proactive planning, our team met with leadership to design a second pathway for testing these at-risk workers before the anticipated flu season which we rightfully predicted would overwhelm public testing capacity.”
In addition to a second pathway, Dr. Dhatt and her team knew from their work in occupational health that essential workers in industries like healthcare, mining, construction, travel, and retail simply could not social distance. Contact was a part of their jobs. The NEOMO team knew there had to be a strategy for workers that failed temperature/COVID screening, for those that had no choice but to travel/work, and for companies experiencing outbreaks.
“The value here is not about testing, but strategy. We work with leaders and OHS to make sure we are socializing the message of what to do and why to do it. Our focus is to keep the entire workplace safe. We work with every part of the operations including employees and unions,” says Dr. Dhatt.
To further this strategic model, NEOMO approached Public Health Ontario for their support to create an alternative accessible pathway for essential workers to have testing as part of an active screening protocol – a mobile COVID testing lab. With their approval, the team jumped into action to do what they needed to do to meet the stringent licensing requirements. The request was approved.
And then things got really interesting.
Opening the lab took three months of non-stop work, and that was after it arrived in Ontario.
“We were the first lab in Ontario to get a private licence, but it wasn’t easy. There is a process for permission for the lab licence since it was built out of province. We had to obtain BSL2 certification (and other certifications for each piece of lab equipment) from Health Canada, set up a leadership team with a microbiologist and clinicians, implement an IQMH quality management system, and get a lab licence for virology from Ontario Health.”
Although arduous, NEOMO forged ahead with a clear goal and vision of “the right equipment, the right staff, the right process, and accountability.” They report to the OLIS and work alongside (and report testing data to) Public Health.
“There are two pathways,” explains Dr. Dhatt. “Public is any patient under public guidelines. If they do not meet the requirements, they go under the private method which includes different call centres, procedures, and nurses. Private testing is indicated for those at-risk patients who would not be eligible for testing otherwise. Do not mistake a certified private testing lab for antigen testing screeners. Under exceptional guidelines, some medical professionals have deployed antigen testing (and it should be mapped under a licenced lab). However, it is not a diagnostic tool.”
“At NEOMO we operate in a licenced environment with oversight from medical directors, microbiologists, and legal expertise. We do not solely rely on software, as software can be wrong or provide false-positive results. We have a medical team that interprets our testing data.”
It isn’t about skipping the line. When most people see the word “private” in front of anything health-related, especially during this pandemic, the gut reaction is to decry that’s for the privileged folks. But let’s take a closer look.
Here are the facts: the goal post for public testing keeps shifting based on the ability of the public system to handle demand. Early on, testing was available for anyone that wanted it. The focus then shifted to symptomatic patients and priority populations that were designated as high risk by the Ministry. Yet the pandemic rages on and many patients require testing that fall outside the guidelines. This is the gap we are hoping to address. NEOMO supports both sides; this is a specialized, licenced company working 24/7 hand-in-hand with local and provincial health authorities to arrange public tests when (ever-shifting) guidelines are met; arrange private tests for those that do not qualify for public testing; and to provide information, guidelines, advocacy, and support for essential workers and travellers.
Dr. Dhatt is adamant that for long-term success during and post-pandemic, we need to start looking at the issue on a broader scale. There is a need for education, understanding, strategy and long-term solutions – not just testing.
“A lot of people are just relying on testing,” she points out, “but testing is only one part of a COVID strategy for the industry. You need a plan and a plan is not just testing. We have to move at lightning speed because the infections are spreading. We need to increase access to testing because prevalence is up. We need to impart more education and adapt to the current situations. Outbreak management is a growing issue. How do we contact trace? Isolate? Are families involved in the isolation? We need strategies that coach people and industry through the whole process while communicating with Public Health. And that is what we do.”
NEOMO’s patient experience is streamlined and includes an interview to understand their risk and if private testing is needed, safe and convenient drive-through private testing, same-day test results and a detailed clearance certificate.
Even long before the pandemic, NEOMO has been at the forefront of patient care and occupational health. Now, with a fight against an invisible enemy on our hands, the NEOMO team is relentless in doing all it can to keep Ontario residents safer and to provide more access to testing and pandemic management strategies.
Learn more at www.neomo.ca.