New Brunswick

Poor supply of COVID-19 test kits restrained testing, but province still running out

New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs says New Brunswick may be just days away from running out of supplies to test for the COVID-19 virus, even though the province's test rate is among the lowest in the country.

As of Thursday, the province had completed just 4,520 tests for the virus

A memo sent to all New Brunswick doctors on March 10 at the beginning of the pandemic warned that testing kits for COVID-19 were in short supply in the province. (Graham Thompson/CBC)

New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs says New Brunswick may be just days away from running out of supplies to test for the COVID-19 virus, even though the province's test rate is among the lowest in the country.

"If we ramped up a bit we could be within like a week of running out of test supplies," Higgs told CBC's Power and Politics on Thursday.   

New Brunswick has been plagued by a shortage of testing supplies since the beginning of the pandemic and has struggled to match the hunt for the virus underway in other provinces 

As of Thursday, the province had completed just 4,520 COVID-19 tests. That's well below the national average per capita — and more than 3,000 tests behind neighbouring Nova Scotia that this week was testing two people for every one New Brunswick was managing.

Higgs said New Brunwick intends to increase its efforts to find more cases of the virus but will be out of supplies quickly if it pushes too hard. 

"We are doing about 500 or 600 tests a day," he said. "We were going to ramp that up a bit but I'm looking in some cases we could have testing requirements where if we ramped it up we could be within like a week of running out of test supplies."

Depleted stockpiles

New Brunswick has been challenged by a lack of testing supplies since the early days of the outbreak when it was caught flat-footed with depleted stockpiles of gear.

Dr. Cristin Muecke was New Brunswick’s acting chief medical health officer in mid-March when the COVID-19 pandemic arrived. She warned physicians tests for the virus were in short supply. (CBC)
A memo sent to all New Brunswick doctors March 10, the day before Atlantic Canada's first case was diagnosed in the Moncton area, shows alarm by then-acting chief medical health officer Dr. Cristin Muecke about the province's capacity to handle extensive testing.

She instructed doctors not to test for COVID-19 without consulting one of the province's regional medical health officers and a medical microbiologist first to try and preserve scant supplies.

"The COVID-19 outbreak has profoundly affected the kits manufacturers and existing stocks," wrote Muecke.   

"The New Brunswick Diagnostic Virology Reference Center has stockpiled kits, but their current stock is progressively depleted without sufficient restocking to replenish it. 

In order to preserve the current stock, we ask for your cooperation as NB hospitals will not be supplied with the usual number of kits."

The requirement to consult a regional medical officer of health before ordering a COVID-19 test remained in New Brunswick until March 16, but even after it was dropped doctors were reminded again that test kits for the virus in the province were in short supply and they should be selective in who they tested.

"It is expected that a very large number of diagnostic tests will be ordered in the coming days to weeks,"  wrote Muecke on March 16.

"Laboratory capacity and supplies are limited provincially and nationally … We need to be careful to choose wisely to maintain the integrity of our diagnostic system."

Those restrictions left New Brunswick well behind other smaller provinces that were up and running with extensive testing programs that week

By March 18, while New Brunswick had only completed only 381 COVID-19 test results, Nova Scotia already had 1,150 done and Saskatchewan 2,366.

Where were supplies?

It is unclear why other small provinces had more supplies to work with from the beginning, but New Brunswick associate deputy minister of health Rene Boudreau said this week the province restricted the amount of testing it did in mid-March out of necessity.

"We could have run 500 tests a day from the start and ran out of swabs halfway through and now we couldn't test anyone," said Boudreau about New Brunswick's slow start.

New Brunswick has been behind other provinces in testing ever since.

This week Nova Scotia, which has just 25 per cent more people than New Brunswick has conducted nearly 1,000 tests per day with New Brunswick performing 1,000 every two days.  

Higgs did not openly accuse other provinces of snapping up or hiding supplies to New Brunswick's peril, but said he wants to see the federal government acquire and distribute COVID-19 tests to achieve a distribution fairer than New Brunswick has had to date.

"I think the point is that the federal government has to be that sole sourcer for us and then providing supply to us  throughout the country," said Higgs.  

"We don't need to be hoarding in our own province. That doesn't help our neighbours and our friends. We need to make sure we have enough supplies for our citizens and do that equally across this country. That's the way we work together.  That's the way we survive together."

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