COVID-19 testing in Nova Scotia to be restricted as demand surges

·3 min read
Public libraries across the province were distributing rapid testing kits, but they will not be restocked. (Craig Paisley/CBC - image credit)
Public libraries across the province were distributing rapid testing kits, but they will not be restocked. (Craig Paisley/CBC - image credit)

With demand for COVID-19 testing surging and capacity reaching its limits, Nova Scotia is imposing new restrictions on who will be tested for the virus, a major shift for a province that has prided itself on a widespread testing regime.

Starting Dec. 27, lab-based PCR testing will only be available to people who are symptomatic or a close contact, and one of the following:

  • At risk of severe disease.

  • Live or work in a congregate setting.

  • Essential to keeping the health-care system running.

Everyone else will have to rely on rapid tests, and if a rapid test shows a positive result, it will be assumed the person is infected. Public Health will not require a PCR test to confirm the rapid test result.

"We have finite resources, both for PCR testing and our rapid tests," Dr. Robert Strang, the province's chief medical officer of health, said at Tuesday's COVID-19 briefing.

"We are working to expand, as much as we can, our supply of rapid tests, but no matter what we do it is a finite resource. The pressures of COVID require us to adjust."

Strang said strain on the province's microbiology labs and health-care staff also factors into the changes.

Craig Paisley/CBC
Craig Paisley/CBC

The province reported 522 new cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday, recording another record high driven by the contagious Omicron variant.

Until this week, the province had been encouraging widespread rapid testing, but Strang said rapid tests will no longer be made widely available. Public libraries will not be restocked and the workplace testing program is being suspended.

More information about how rapid tests will be distributed is expected later this week.

Strang said people who are symptomatic or identified as close contacts, but do not meet the criteria for PCR testing, should be given priority for rapid tests.

"These changes do not come easily," said Strang.

Steve Lawrence/CBC
Steve Lawrence/CBC

For much of the pandemic Nova Scotia has been more liberal in its approach to testing than other Canadian provinces, offering widespread rapid and PCR testing, regardless of symptoms.

"Omicron and the challenges it's presenting is forcing us to change our approach," Strang said.

Strang said a negative rapid test result should not be taken as an all-clear to attend social gatherings or drop other public health protocols and recommendations like masking, distancing and hand-washing.

Regular, daily, asymptomatic testing to monitor infection status is not sustainable with Nova Scotia's current supply of rapid tests, Strang said.

Strang said he was concerned by reports of verbal and physical abuse to staff and volunteers at testing and distribution sites, and people stealing test kits.

He said that behaviour is "just not acceptable."

CBC
CBC

Dr. Lisa Barrett, an infectious disease specialist who has been instrumental in the province's rapid testing regime, said she expected the strategy to change as Omicron becomes more widespread.

Barrett said she supports the decision to give people who are close contacts priority when it comes to rapid tests.

"We still need to have lots of tests, and Nova Scotia does, and I'm sure they're going to work toward a really equitable way of making sure we still have lots of access to antigen tests over the next number of weeks for people with and without symptoms," Barrett told CBC Radio's Mainstreet on Tuesday.

Ensuring PCR tests go to Nova Scotians who are most at risk of getting seriously ill from the virus is also important, she said.

"Those are people that we might have some ability to have early treatments for, and unless we know about them through PCR, then we wouldn't be able to reach them, so I thought that was really super helpful," she said.

Also at Tuesday's briefing, the province introduced a slew of new restrictions that will last until at least Jan. 12 to help curb the current wave of COVID-19 infections.

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