As It Happens

Nova Scotia was leading the way with free rapid tests. Now it's scaling back

Earlier this month, Nova Scotia’s chief medical officer of health was encouraging people to go get free rapid tests from their local libraries. Dr. Robert Strang says the province's supply of rapid tests is quickly dwindling as the Omicron variant spreads.

Dr. Robert Strang, N.S. chief medical officer of health, says Omicron changes everything 

Workers process tests during a rapid-testing event at Dalhousie University on Nov. 24, 2020. The province is now rolling back its deployment of rapid tests. (Robert Short/CBC)

Story Transcript

Earlier this month, Nova Scotia's chief medical officer of health was encouraging people to go get free rapid tests from their local libraries, and use them before their planned holiday gatherings.

Now, Dr. Robert Strang is advising people to cancel or scale back their Christmas plans because the province's supply of rapid tests is quickly dwindling as the Omicron variant spreads.

With cases at an all-time high in the province, Nova Scotia is ending its widespread deployment of free rapid tests to the general public. Libraries and workplaces will no longer be restocked. 

Starting Dec. 27, the province will limit PCR tests — which are more accurate — to high-risk, symptomatic individuals and their close contacts. That means essential health-care workers, people who are at risk of severe disease, and people live or work in congregate settings.

Anyone else who needs a test will be given one of the province's limited supply of rapid tests. 

You can read more about the new testing rules in Nova Scotia here. The following is an excerpt of Strang's conversation with As It Happens host Carol Off. 

People in other provinces across the country have watched Nova Scotia, quite often with envy, as to how you have been able to control the rise of infection…. We spoke with a chief librarian in Halifax [on Dec. 15], who was part of this distribution of rapid tests, [which is] also something that other provinces would like to have done. But now you're not going to distribute so many rapid tests. What's going on?

The pressures of Omicron and the surge of cases [is hitting] many areas where we have finite capacity. Testing is one of them. We only have so much lab capacity, so much capacity to actually swab people. And even though we continue to try to expand it, [we have] a limited, or at least a finite, supply of rapid test kits.

We can no longer afford to have people just testing twice a week because they like the comfort of that, or even testing before they go out for a social activity. We just can't afford that.

We have to use other measures, like limiting social activity, being very careful around using masking, and physical distancing to help us control things.

You're right. Good access to rapid testing has been a part of our success story. But the limitations of our capacity in many areas just does not allow that to continue as we deal with Omicron.

[On] Dec. 13 you said: "We recognize it's another way to keep gatherings safe over the holidays. So we're making rapid tests more widely available for the season." And you said, "Doing a rapid test can add an extra layer of protection if you're hosting or attending gatherings." And so that's longer going to be available to people?

It's just not feasible … with a finite supply of our rapid test kits. 

We have to keep the use of our PCR testing through our labs to a level of about 8,000 a day, so we can make sure that the people who are being tested were getting timely turnaround of their results. That's critically important.

So then we have to shift for others who aren't as high-risk… If they're symptomatic, they need a test. So we're going to rely on rapid test kits for them.

Assuming that if you're positive on a rapid test kit, you're positive. You don't need to even confirm it [with] a PCR [test]. And that's because of the high rate of COVID. 

Nova Scotia adding more restrictions, turns to 'focused testing' for COVID-19

6 months ago
Duration 8:22
The Omicron variant is leading to record case numbers in the province. On Tuesday, Dec. 21 the province reported 522 cases.

But now people are desperate to get hold of these kits, right? … I mean, hundreds of thousands of [rapid tests] went almost immediately, right, in Nova Scotia? What concerned you about the way people were getting and going after those tests?

The amount of test kits that were being used. And unfortunately, you know, people getting large amounts of test kits. And both [verbal harassment] and threats of physical physical violence at certain places that were handing out test kits.

Really? People were fighting over them?

Or being physically threatening to the staff at our testing centres. It was unfortunate in the types of behaviours we're seeing from a minority of people. But it's just the reality.

I guess my message to Nova Scotians is: In the middle of this Omicron wave, we should be stopping our social activities, not relying on a test to say that I'm negative, so I'm safe to go out and socialize.

What did you think when you saw that people responded that way, that they were so aggressive?

I understand human nature. This is a very fearful time. But it was certainly the minority that we're doing that. 

But over and over again, my continued appeal for all Nova Scotians [is] to treat each other with kindness and caring and putting the needs of the community ahead of our individual needs. And in a time like this, it's even more important that we focus on that.

The province's chief medical officer of health, Dr. Robert Strang. (Communications Nova Scotia)

So who will have access to the rapid tests, the take-home tests?

We'll be giving more details in the next couple of days. 

Everything we've talked about officially comes into effect Dec. 27. But even now we're asking Nova Scotians to start to think about how they use the kits differently. And if you have a supply of kits and there are people in your social circle or in your family who are needing a kit for one of the higher-priority needs, share your test kits with them.

The people who absolutely need a test, whether it's a PCR or rapid test kit, in the days and weeks ahead in our priority list, will have access to testing.

Do you regret, in hindsight, having passed out so many of those rapid test kits?


Things change very quickly. I mean, good access to rapid test kits, we've been leading the country in that, and that's been a hallmark of our success.

But things have changed very quickly. And, you know, if there was an unlimited supply of test kits, we'd continue to use them the way they are. 

Every province is just struggling with the same thing — how to have an appropriate COVID response within finite resources.

Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from CBC Nova Scotia. Interview produced by Chris Harbord. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

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