Nova Scotia's COVID-19 testing capacity has doubled in the past 2 weeks

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Laboratories testing for COVID-19 in Nova Scotia are now equipped to handle as many as 5,000 tests per day.

It's a number that has yet to be reached, but the amount of daily tests has been creeping up since the start of the second wave earlier this fall, reaching a record high of 4,138 reported Tuesday.

"We're adjusting our capacity essentially in real time as the pandemic shifts," said Tim Mailman, senior medical director for the pathology and lab medicine program at Nova Scotia Health.

Epidemiologists tracking the spread of COVID-19 in Nova Scotia predicted about two weeks ago that demand for testing would grow to 5,000, said Mailman. That's double the daily tests the province could handle in mid-November, so the labs started shifting resources.

"It's been a complex logistical system to ramp up in a short period of time, but we've managed to do it," said Mailman.

Once centralized at the QEII Health Sciences Centre microbiology lab, some regional hospitals around the province are now processing tests, and Mailman said there are plans to bring more locations on board.

The next level of growth would be for 7,000 tests per day — something that's been talked about, but isn't yet in the works. For now, Mailman said Public Health has asked the health authority to stay ready for 5,000 daily tests.

Lab technologists highly sought after

The biggest obstacle to growing lab capacity is the availability of trained lab technologists. While the health authority has been able to recruit more clerical staff, technologists have been harder to find.

"The biggest challenge has been human resources. There's been a long-standing Canadian shortage of medical lab technologists. It's a very highly sought after specialty," he said.

"There are no unemployed lab technologists in the province — at least, none that want to be working."

With that dearth of workers, the health authority has scaled back on lab activity not related to the coronavirus to accommodate the surge in COVID-19 swabs coming in. Some testing that is considered routine has been put on pause or is only going ahead with a special request from physicians.

Robert Short/CBC
Robert Short/CBC

Routine testing is one of three broad categories used in provincial labs. Mailman said the other two categories — urgent testing, which physicians need completed within a matter of hours to properly diagnose and treat patients, and stat testing, needed within minutes — won't be affected by COVID-19 protocols.

Included in the routine category is screening for some sexually transmitted infections. Dr. Joyce Curtis, medical director of the Halifax Sexual Health Centre, said that leaves the possibility of an uptick in STI spread — although it isn't a top concern for her.

"We can always do presumptive treatment," Curtis said.

By Mailman's estimation, limiting some routine lab work will be no more than an inconvenience.

"For the vast majority of Nova Scotians, the scale backs will be invisible," he said.

New instruments on the way

New testing equipment from the national microbiology lab in Winnipeg is en route to Nova Scotia, according to Mailman, which won't necessarily make a big mark on capacity, but will offer an important refinement to the province's testing practices.

The instruments test for over 20 respiratory viruses at once.

"So as we approach flu season, that's going to be quite helpful because those platforms will allow us to distinguish COVID from the common cold, from influenza," said Mailman.

Not every possible COVID-19 case that comes in for testing will go through those instruments; they'll likely be reserved for those who are admitted with symptoms, or people who need to be screened before surgery.

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