Nova Scotia

Nova Scotia looks to expand COVID-19 testing to better understand virus's spread

After seeing the lowest number of daily COVID-19 tests in a month, Nova Scotia is looking for ways to expand testing, use the lab to its fullest capacity and learn more about the virus's spread in the province.

After the slowest testing day in a month, Nova Scotia's top doctor wants the lab back to full capacity

Medical laboratory technologist Grace Lee is one of the staff at the virology and molecular lab at the QEII Health Sciences Centre in Halifax. (David Blomme/NSHA)

After conducting more than 27,000 COVID-19 tests at the QEII Health Sciences Centre's microbiology lab since mid-March, a dip in the number of daily screenings has Nova Scotia's chief medical officer of health looking for ways to increase testing.

On Monday, the lab processed 483 tests, which is "well below their capacity," said Dr. Robert Strang at the province's COVID-19 briefing on Tuesday.

"We are looking at other ways that we can enhance our testing to understand more about the impact of COVID and how it may have spread within our province," he said.

Strang said knowing how many people have contracted the virus and whether they have developed symptoms helps public health understand the true extent of community spread.

It could also help public health hone its response to the virus and, eventually, help inform when and how to lift restrictions, said Strang. But he cautioned that many restrictions will likely remain in place for months to come.

Nova Scotia Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Robert Strang said a second wave of coronavirus is 'likely to come,' and immunity testing would make the impact of a second wave easier to predict. (CBC)

Since the province started releasing the number of daily tests at the end of March, 483 is the lowest figure. On four dates, the number of samples processed reached at least 1,000. April 14 was the busiest day at the lab, with 1,476 samples tested.

Strang attributed this week's drop in testing numbers, in part, to the end of the flu season, which means fewer people are presenting with COVID-like symptoms.

He also said that Northwood, Halifax's largest long-term care home and the site of a significant outbreak of the virus, is now sending fewer tests to the lab.

In response to the outbreak at Northwood, public health tested all staff and residents at the facility, and Strang said that "broad sweep" was completed last week.

Strang said he wants to return to operating at the lab's "well developed" capacity, and public health is exploring ways to do so.

April 14 was the busiest day at the QEII Health Sciences Centre's microbiology lab, with 1,476 samples tested. (Nova Scotia Health Authority)

Already, it has expanded testing within Halifax's homeless population.

The first known case of COVID-19 at a homeless shelter was confirmed last week, and public health responded by testing everyone at that shelter, and moving them into a hotel to self-isolate.

Strang said anyone staying at any shelter in Halifax will now be tested.

The province has opened primary testing centres in some communities with high rates of viral spread, and Strang said public health is looking at ways to expand community testing.

New testing methods in the works

Strang said he's in regular conversation with other Canadian chief medical officers of health about adopting new forms of testing, including immunity testing.

The existing test looks for an active virus, but immunity tests look for antibodies in the blood.

The science on immunity to COVID-19 remains unclear, but most experts agree that individuals who contract the virus and survive develop at least some short-term immunity.

Strang said a second wave of the virus is "likely to come," and immunity testing would make the impact of a second wave easier to predict.

Scientists are working on antibody tests for COVID-19, but the World Health Organization and Health Canada have not yet approved of any.