Nova Scotia

Testing for certain STIs resumes in Halifax after pandemic forced suspension

The Halifax Sexual Health Centre paused testing for chlamydia, gonorrhea and HSV in December.

Pressures on lab staff have led to interruptions in testing for sexually transmitted infections

The Halifax Sexual Health Centre offers oral swabbing and urine testing for chlamydia and gonorrhea. It also tests for HIV, hepatitis B, hepatitis C, and syphilis through blood work. (Craig Chivers/CBC)

Testing for certain sexually transmitted infections has resumed in Halifax after being paused for about seven weeks due to pressures on laboratory staff processing COVID-19 tests.

Abbey Ferguson, a promotion co-ordinator with the Halifax Sexual Health Centre, is encouraging people to book tests as soon as possible, noting that appointments are filling up fast and there's no guarantee the service won't be interrupted again due to the pandemic.

"If you're thinking about STI [sexually transmitted infection] testing during this time, with COVID, you should book an appointment while it is still available because we know that it's not permanent, and there's going to be periods of time where we're not going to be able to do it," she said.

The centre announced in mid-December that processing of swabs and urine tests for chlamydia, gonorrhea and HSV (herpes) in non-pregnant people would be suspended as COVID-19 cases surged in Nova Scotia due to the Omicron variant.

At the time, the centre said patients would be deferred for testing or treated based on a risk assessment. The suspension did not impact Pap tests, or testing for blood-borne sexually transmitted infections like HIV, hepatitis B, hepatitis C and syphilis.

Testing previously halted

It's not the first time testing has been interrupted.

Testing for chlamydia, gonorrhea and HSV was paused starting in November 2020 for several months when the second wave of the pandemic hit.

Testing for chlamydia, gonorrhea, HSV, HIV, hepatitis B, hepatitis C and syphilis was also suspended for more than a month last spring as COVID-19 testing ramped up.

Carla Adams, a spokesperson for Nova Scotia Health, said there is once again capacity to resume processing tests for sexually transmitted infections due to a decreased volume in COVID-19 testing.

"The reduction in volume has allowed some staff and instruments that were needed on COVID testing to refocus on other suspended tests," Adams said in an email.

Ferguson said people are also able to be tested for sexually transmitted infections at walk-in clinics, family doctor's offices or the dedicated clinic at the Victoria General Hospital in Halifax. University health clinics are also available to students.

She said wait times for test results have improved, going from an average of four weeks to less than two.

'It's definitely challenging' 

Ferguson said the Halifax Sexual Health Centre does hundreds of tests a month, and it's been difficult to promote regular testing when the clinic is not able to actually offer it, despite that some people have resumed casual sexual relationships during the pandemic.

"It's definitely challenging, especially with the narrative around STI testing, [which] is very much about prevention and the importance of getting regular screening.... then at the same time, saying like, 'Except for right now, right now you don't get it,'" she said.

"So that's definitely not ideal to give very conflicting narratives."

Ferguson said if the centre is forced to closed, it has a triage system in place for appointments, ensuring that people can still get things they need, such as birth control.

"That's ideal for all sorts of folks, like for birth control renewals, checking up on a blood work result — like anything where you don't need a physical exam," she said.

"It leaves room for if there was another part of the wave where we might have to restrict services again, that we'd be able to screen that over the phone."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Feleshia Chandler is a journalist based in Halifax. She loves helping people tell their stories and has interests in issues surrounding LGBTQ+ people as well as Black, Indigenous and people of colour. You can reach her at feleshia.chandler@cbc.ca.

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