Nova Scotia's first rapid COVID-19 testing site pops up in Halifax nightclub

·3 min read

Nova Scotia's first rapid COVID-19 testing site operated in downtown Halifax Saturday night, making use of an empty nightclub to target a population the province's top doctor says is driving transmission of the coronavirus.

Where you would typically find The Dome's coat check attendant, Dr. Lisa Barrett stood wearing a mask, goggles, gloves and surgical gown.

Barrett, an infectious disease specialist at Dalhousie University, and Dr. Todd Hatchette, service chief for microbiology in the Nova Scotia Health Authority's central zone, were among the team organizing and administering the rapid antigen tests.

The pop-up operation co-opted The Dome, which is closed for its usual purpose because of the pandemic, for a few hours Saturday night. No appointments were necessary. The rapid testing site was meant to attract people already in the area, including bar staff and patrons.

At least 150 people were tested Saturday, with one positive result from a bar patron. That person was swabbed again for lab testing to verify the results of the rapid test, and was sent home to isolate.

The result will only be counted in the provincial tally of COVID-19 cases if it is confirmed.

Michael Gorman/CBC
Michael Gorman/CBC

In an interview Sunday, Barrett said the event "went really well" logistically. She hopes it will serve as a model to be replicated across the province. Barrett emphasized the rapid test cannot be relied upon as a medical tool for diagnosing and treating COVID-19, but is an important public health tool that provides information about how much coronavirus there is in the community.

Right now, Barrett said, Nova Scotia is "a little bit blind" as to how widespread COVID-19 is in the community.

She said that one positive result out of 150 might not seem like a high rate, but it's higher than she'd like to see. If this represents the rate of asymptomatic infection in the whole population, "that's a heck of a lot of people ... because we know this virus spreads when you have no symptoms."

On Friday, at a news conference in which the premier and chief medical officer of health delivered a stern, cautionary message about the recent uptick in COVID-19 transmission in the Halifax area, Dr. Robert Strang said social activity among 18- to 35-year-olds, including visits to downtown bars, was driving viral spread.

Until this past week, public health had not recorded any community spread in Nova Scotia since the spring. The few active cases at any given moment throughout the summer and fall were all traceable to incoming travellers, but that's no longer the case.

The rapid testing launched on a weekend when Nova Scotia had two of its largest single-day case counts since May, with eight new cases Saturday and 11 Sunday. As of Sunday, there are a total of 44 known active cases of COVID-19.

There's a growing list of potential exposure sites — all in the Halifax area — many of which are bars and restaurants.

Strang announced Friday that public health would be trying a new approach, testing people without COVID-19 symptoms, starting with bar staff on the Halifax peninsula.

Saturday's pop-up event was a pilot, and more testing opportunities for bar staff are to come.

In a news release Sunday, Strang said Saturday's rapid testing results will contribute to his office's evolving testing and screening strategy.

Michael Gorman/CBC
Michael Gorman/CBC

Nova Scotia has been sitting on 60,000 rapid antigen tests as health officials contemplated how best to use them. Saturday's pop-up event marks the first time any of those tests have been deployed.

Barrett said she'd like to see "a lot" of the rapid tests used in the next two to three weeks to get better data.

Results of the rapid test are available in as little as 15 minutes, as opposed to one to three days, which is what it takes for results from the "gold-standard" PCR test that has to be processed in a lab. Although faster and easier to administer, there's a greater chance of getting a false negative result.

MORE TOP STORIES