Nova Scotia looks to adopt B.C. COVID-19 test, but lacks cases for verification
'Before we implement any change to our process, we need to prove that it works'
Nova Scotia is working to implement the COVID-19 swish, gargle and spit test recently introduced for school-aged children in British Columbia, but right now there aren't enough cases to confirm the testing method.
There is currently one active case in the province.
"To really validate a test, you have to have people who have the virus, so that we can compare gargles to our standard testing," said Dr. Todd Hatchette, the chief of service for microbiology in the Nova Scotia Health Authority's central zone.
"Nova Scotia has done such a tremendous job at flattening the curve, that we don't really have positive tests at the moment that will allow us to do that."
Hatchette said the health authority is working with colleagues in B.C. to get specimens in order to corroborate the gargle test in Nova Scotia.
"Before we implement any change to our process, we need to prove that it works," Hatchette said.
"But it is a very exciting possibility that will help increase our capacity to test people, because I know that's been a challenge over the last number of months."
Right now, COVID-19 testing is done through a nasal swab.
Hatchette said with the gargle test, a patient takes sterile salt water, swishes it around in their mouth, gargles with it, repeats this three times and then spits it into a tube.
While some provinces are looking at saliva testing, such as spitting into a tube, Hatchette said the health authority isn't pursuing that.
Hatchette said part of the reason is a study done out of B.C. found that rinse or gargle samples had a sensitivity of 98 per cent, making them better for detecting the virus than saliva samples, which had a sensitivity of 79 per cent.
"Sensitivity is important because if you have low levels of virus before they become symptomatic, you want to detect those people," Hatchette said.
Hatchette could not say when the gargle tests will be available, and it's unclear who in the province will be able to access them.
In B.C., the tests are only available to children between ages four and 19, meaning those younger than four still have to have a nasal swab.
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But the hope for an alternative testing method will come as welcome news to parents like Allison West, whose five-year-old daughter has already undergone two COVID-19 tests.
The second test, which was done on Saturday, was not a pleasant experience for West or her daughter, Lily.
West, who lives in Kentville, said they were sent to a testing site in Wolfville. The site had partitions set up and roughly four people were being tested at the same time — and many of those being tested were also young children.
"I had to hold her down so she could get her test done while she screamed, all these other kids are all screaming and crying, too," she said.
"I can't imagine it not being traumatic for any child, it was horrible. I came out crying, too."
She said she wants to see Nova Scotia move to another method of testing, particularly for young children as many are returning back to school and catching common colds and needing COVID tests.
"It's causing the parents and the children a lot of unnecessary stress. We're already stressed out as it is," West said.
But Hatchette said the nasal swabs aren't going anywhere for the time being and will still be required for anyone admitted to the hospital, even if the gargle test comes into effect, because it is considered the most accurate.
He said the turnaround time in the lab would be about the same as it is now, which is within 24 hours but often completed within eight to 16 hours after the lab receives the results.
Hatchette said they are also looking to validate an antibody test using blood samples.
"The challenge of course is that we have no idea what a positive test means. Does it mean you're immune? Does it mean that you won't get reinfection?" he said.
"We still don't know how long the immunity lasts and there's lots of unknown questions that make serology not ready for prime time yet."