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Nunavut's top doctor says rapid COVID-19 testing project at mine doesn't replace isolation

Agnico Eagle Mines is starting a pilot for rapid result testing of COVID-19 at its Meliadine site, but Nunavut’s chief public health officer says the screening set-up is not a replacement for 14 days of isolation.

Agnico Eagle awaits Health Canada approval for rapid-result screening lab at Meliadine site

Rapid result screening of people who don't show symptoms of COVID-19 has a possible error rate of three in 10 people tested, says Dr. Michael Patterson, Nunavut's chief public health officer. (Beth Brown/CBC )

Agnico Eagle Mines is starting a pilot for rapid result testing of COVID-19 at its Meliadine site, but Nunavut's chief public health officer says the screening setup is not a replacement for 14 days of isolation. 

The mine announced on Sunday night it had shipped in diagnostic equipment to set up a testing lab. The plan is to screen workers who are coming in on new rotations to the mine. It's working with a doctor and professor from Laval University who specializes in infectious diseases. It planned to start on Monday. 

"The purpose of the pilot project is to provide a rapid and accurate COVID-19 test to our employees working at our Nunavut mines and to help protect surrounding communities," Agnico Eagle Mines Ltd. said in a news release. "The lab can also confirm if a person is positive with COVID-19 even if the individual doesn't show any symptoms." 

But Dr. Michael Patterson, the chief public health officer, says the error rate for testing someone before they show symptoms is around 30 per cent, or three in 10. He told mine management that its staff would still have to stay out of surrounding communities. 

"At this time there is no evidence that screening in this fashion is a substitute for 14 days of isolation," Patterson said Monday, during the government of Nunavut's daily COVID-19 update.

"Testing for COVID-19 at the wrong time and in the wrong way can produce incorrect results and create a false sense of reassurance that is not only wrong, but dangerous to the health of the community," he said. "It's that false sense of security that has me concerned."

Agnico Eagle's pilot lab has yet to be approved by Health Canada. It could get that approval to do presumptive tests by next week. But if it gets that clearance, the tests can only be done on site, because moving the diagnostic equipment can cancel out that approval. 

For the government to use similar diagnostic testing in Nunavut, the Health Department says it needs equipment that is mobile, so it can help every community. The department is working to get such testing machines, but has no word on when that might happen. 

As of Monday, there were 247 people under investigation for COVID-19 in Nunavut, and 109 people who have been investigated and cleared.

Corrections

  • An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the pilot project is happening at Agnico Eagle's Meadowbank site. It's actually at the company's Meliadine site.
    Apr 07, 2020 7:29 PM CT

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