Nova Scotia

This auction house owner turned shipping containers into a COVID-19 testing unit

Nova Scotians who want a quick and easy COVID-19 test in the Halifax area can thank a Dartmouth business owner for turning eight shipping containers into a medical unit that makes drive-thru testing available year round.

Nova Scotia businessman Darren Godbout has taken up the fight against COVID-19

The inside of a well-lit, spacious drive-thru, showing a closed bay door directly ahead.
This COVID-19 testing unit in Dartmouth, N.S., was made out of shipping containers. (Dave Irish/CBC)

Darren Godbout is in the business of finding new uses for things other people no longer want. But since last spring, his work running his auction house has taken a back seat to another, more pressing project: helping in the fight against COVID-19.

The Dartmouth, N.S., business owner turned over most of the parking lot he owns as part of Auction Advantage to the Dartmouth General Hospital, his next-door neighbour, which used the space to run a drive-thru COVID testing unit.

But that under-a-tent test site was forced to close in bad weather and wasn't feasible as a winter operation. So Godbout, who uses shipping containers as part of his business, proposed repurposing some of those to create a winterized testing centre.

"It came together a lot better than I thought," Godbout said Thursday in the warehouse he took over from his dad's business about five years ago. "I'm happy with it."

Darren Godbout, who runs Auction Advantage in Dartmouth, N.S., is shown on Thursday. (Dave Irish/CBC)

In the end, it took a pile of friends, family, work colleagues and business associates to turn seven used containers into a four-vehicle drive-thru site, complete with heat, lights and running water. There's also a small office for the paperwork. Another container is set up adjacent to the drive-thru for registering patients.

"In my other businesses, [we've] always kind of [been] pushing the envelope and doing stuff outside of the box, so when COVID came about, some of this outside-of-the-box thinking worked."

Asked why he would put so much time and effort into this philanthropic venture, Godbout wasn't sure.

"Good question, I don't know," he said with a laugh. "I was asked to help and [I came] up with a few ideas and the ideas turned into a hands-on approach and here we are."

Harold Taylor, the Nova Scotia Health Authority manager for the unit, is thrilled with the makeshift facility. It has allowed for twice as many vehicles to be processed at the same time as was possible under the commercial tent.

The tent site was taken down on Nov. 16 when it became too cold, and he said staff who worked there were eager to return to their new workplace.

"When we were all redeployed at some of the other sites, they were really anxious to get back here," he said. "The camaraderie of the folks that have been working here, in the outside environment, has been phenomenal.

"These guys are absolutely fabulous. They're happy that they're here now."

Auction Advantage is located next to the Dartmouth General Hospital. (Dave Irish/CBC)

Taylor said the people who have used the facility like it because they don't need to park or sit in a waiting room with others before getting tested.

"The individuals are actually much more at ease," he said. "They're in their own vehicles. It's a much quicker process for them to be registered. Drive in, have the assessment and swab done, and then leave. Normally everything can be done in a five-minute turnaround."

A good environment aside, running a drive-thru testing site also allows for faster service and fewer mask and gown changes.

"Because there's the barrier between staff and the individual in the vehicle there's less of a need for us to actually switch out the [personal protective equipment] between patients and they're less likely to be contaminated," said Taylor.

The outside view of a drive-thru at Dartmouth General Hospital, showing two white bay doors, where people can now get a COVID-19 vaccine and flu shot, COVID testing, and blood collection.
The COVID-19 testing unit made from shipping containers is winterized. (Dave Irish/CBC)

Stephen Harding, president and CEO of the Dartmouth General Foundation, called Godbout's efforts a unique donation.

"This is incredible," he said. "It takes a village to make things like this happen, and it's incredible to have neighbours like this to make it come to life.

"He helped us solve a problem. He saw the problem, helped develop the solution and saw it though and actually implemented the solution.

"That's philanthropy in action."

Godbout continues to be part the project, offering his time and expertise every time there's an issue or problem to be solved. He's not sure how long the unit will be needed but he's happy to do his part until the pandemic is over.