Company behind COVID-19 border testing says medical professionals 'always' oversee testing

WATCH: Insiders at Switch Health, a Toronto startup company tasked with testing international travellers arriving in Canada for COVID-19, say the company is struggling to meet demands and putting Canadians at risk.

A top executive from Switch Health — the company behind Canada’s COVID-19 border testing program — told a parliamentary committee Friday that medical professionals were “always overseeing” sample collection carried out by the company.

The remarks were made during an exchange between Conservative MP Michelle Rempel Garner and Switch Health’s chief financial officer, Olga Jilani, who told the committee that the company is contractually obligated to ensure all tests are completed with the supervision of a “medical professional.”

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“Were any of the samples collected while not under the supervision of a medical professional?” Rempel Garner asked.

“Medical professionals were always overseeing the sample collection,” Jilani said. “All the telehealth professionals who observe specimen collection are overseen as well by an RN or RPN.”

Switch Health has faced complaints from travellers who say they’ve had to wait in quarantine longer than necessary due to delays in receiving test results.

Five employees of Blast Marketing, a subcontractor hired by Switch Health, also told Global News they were asked to identify themselves as “nurses” while supervising COVID-19 tests over secure telehealth services, even though they have no qualifications to use this title.

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Jilani also addressed Global News’ previous reporting directly, insisting that any claims the company asked employees to misrepresent themselves are untrue.

“We’re proud to employ over 1,100 nursing professionals,” Jilani said. “We also employ a small number of trained telehealth generalists who are permitted to oversee this type of testing process.

“Any suggestion that Switch Health has ever instructed employees to identify themselves as a nurse when they are not is categorically false.”

Blast Marketing, the subcontractor whose employees told Global News they were asked to identify themselves as nurses, has also denied these claims.

In a previous written statement, Blast Marketing said it had “no knowledge of any statement indicating, nor any reason to believe, any team member is fraudulently presenting themselves as a registered nurse or registered practical nurse.”

“Blast Marketing has provided Switch Health with field operations, administrative staff, call centre support and some telehealth staff in surge periods,” the company said. “Our team does not falsely represent themselves as nurses or any form of medical professional.”

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Blast Marketing also provided Global News with anonymous testimonials from two people the company purported to be employees. The testimonials said the employees were never asked to identify themselves as nurses.

Switch Health is based in Ontario, which has made exemptions for who can supervise the nasal swabbing process, the College of Nurses of Ontario (CNO) said. This means it is not necessarily required that a medical professional oversee the test.

But the CNO did say it’s illegal for anyone to practice nursing or use the title of nurse without a valid certificate of registration.

A $100 million contract

Earlier this year, the federal government awarded Switch Health a contract worth nearly $100 million to conduct COVID-19 testing at border crossing, airports and for returning travellers at home.

In Friday’s hearing, Switch Health’s chief executive officer Dilian Stoyanov described the startup as “a homegrown Canadian success story that met a daunting task during the pandemic, bringing critical health-care services to an increasingly virtual world.”

He also said, “all specimens collected under the supervision of a telehealth professional, a nurse or telehealth generalist are done in compliance with laws in the respective province.”

A report by Global News released in April revealed how hundreds of travellers described problems with Switch Health’s testing program, including long wait times and missing test kits.

Switch Health told Global News in an email that a collection of 250 online complaints represented only 0.007 per cent of all the tests administered to date. The company also said it has scaled up its operations and continuously hired new employees to upgrade its systems and reduce wait times, but said it was going through some “growing pains.”

Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole has criticized Switch Health’s ability to deliver testing results on time, stating that “one in six of their tests have failed to deliver a test result within the 14-day quarantine period.”

“That failure rate is unacceptable,” O’Toole said during question period on Thursday.

Statistics provided by the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) show that 17 per cent of post-arrival tests completed by Switch Health were returned after the mandatory 14-day quarantine period had expired.

PHAC said changes to testing protocols in late April have significantly reduced the percentage of post-arrival tests that are delayed.

PHAC said 99 per cent of post-arrival tests completed by Switch Health are now completed within the required 14-day period. The company echoed these remarks during Friday’s hearing.

The federal government adopted progressively tougher testing requirements for returning international air travellers in January and February. This included requirements to be tested for COVID-19 immediately upon arrival at an airport, plus mandated post-arrival testing prior to leaving quarantine.

International air travellers were also required to quarantine at government-approved hotels upon their arrival in Canada pending a negative COVID-19 test.

Jordan Paquet, Switch Health’s vice president of public affairs, told the committee that the company received the contract after entering a competitive bidding process. He said the company applied through the proper channels and met the criteria necessary to be awarded the contract.

© 2021 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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