Nova Scotia

Why Nova Scotia needs more clerical staff to speed up COVID-19 testing

The Nova Scotia Health Authority is looking to hire more clerical staff to enter data collected during COVID-19 tests.

'The human resource aspect of testing is our current challenge'

Medical laboratory technologist Fred Li monitors operation of the Cobas 6800 instrument used in COVID-19 testing at the QEII Health Sciences Centre’s microbiology lab in Halifax. (Communications Nova Scotia)

There's one thing the province's COVID-19 testing lab still needs to make sure it's ready for the second wave of COVID-19.

It's not lab equipment, swabs or even lab technicians. It's clerical staff. 

"The human resource aspect of testing is our current challenge," said Dr. Todd Hatchette the chief of service for microbiology for the central zone of Nova Scotia Health.  "Early on it was swabs.

"We're actively trying to recruit and fill positions."

Staff who handle data entry into the health authority's computers are in high demand. 

"One of the biggest bottlenecks is actually entering the information we receive on a requisition — the piece of paper that comes with the sample outlining the patient details — into the computer system," said Hatchette. 

The information connected to the swab needs to be put into the computer system so that medical staff can keep track of where it came from.

Dr. Todd Hatchette is the chief of service for microbiology for the central zone of Nova Scotia Health. (Carolyn Ray/CBC)

Hatchette said entering that information can take from three to six minutes. The lab can process 1,500 tests on a normal day.

That's a lot of time. 

With a second wave of COVID-19 widely predicted for this fall or winter, Hatchette said the lab will increase its capacity to 2,500 tests a day. 

The lab can handle the work, but it's hard for clerical staff to keep up. Hatchette estimates another 15 staff members would be needed if there is a surge in demand for tests.

They can haul some staff from other departments within Nova Scotia Health, but additional hiring would be preferable, he said.

A nasal swab is required to test for COVID-19 in Nova Scotia. (Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images)

"We are actively hiring and training clerical staff," said Hatchette. "We are anticipating we are going to need more staff, so we are actively looking and training new people on a daily basis."

Anyone interested in a clerical job is being asked to email the health authority at: recruitment.services-GN@nshealth.ca.

Running 2,500 tests a day would also mean finding more people to collect swabs and get them back to the lab, said Hatchette.  

There are currently 66 full-time equivalent employees in the microbiology lab with nine additional full-time equivalent workers who can help with COVID-19 testing, while also maintaining other microbiology testing. 

Right now, people can call 811 if they have any COVID-19 symptom. A nurse on the other end of the line will decide if a test is needed.

Since many of the symptoms mimic cold and flu, there are concerns that the lab could be overrun with tests once school resumes.

Hatchette said the health authority has worked hard to make sure it can handle a surge in testing. 

Nova Scotia Health now has a big stockpile of testing equipment for COVID-19. (Communications Nova Scotia)

While the health authority tries to round up more clerical staff, it has succeeded in stockpiling a mass of testing equipment.

If the lab ran 1,500 tests a day, it would have 221 days worth of swabs and would be able to run 86 days worth of tests. If it ran 2,500 tests a day, it would have 133 days worth of swabs and could run 51 days worth of tests. 

Hatchette said the lab has improved its response time getting back to patients who test negative for the virus. They are sent an email with a secure link to their results. 

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