Preventing outbreaks and protecting vulnerable populations in a pandemic

·4 min read

For Annie Froese, director at Southridge Shelter in St. Catharines, the daily fight against COVID-19 takes on a deeper sense of responsibility.

As an organization that provides beds, and a place to stay for an ever-changing group of people made up of some of the region’s most vulnerable populations, the possibility of an outbreak is a constant threat.

Eight months into the pandemic, Froese said Southridge has been able to keep both its staff and clients safe, largely through a proactive approach.

“The region has equipped us with a great process,” Froese said.

“Any individual coming in for a bed completes a screening before they complete intake. We also screen everyone twice a day; if someone fails a screening, they get moved over to the self isolation shelter. Then on the advice of medical professionals, they determine if testing should happen and they take care of that.”

Froese said so far the protocol has worked great for clients, but protecting staff poses some added difficulty.

For one, it can take several days between getting a test, and getting the results, which means staff could be away from work for up to a week.

“The workload for our vulnerable populations is higher these days, so things are already a little tight.”

At Southridge, staff are tested on the advice of public health or medical experts when they have been in close contact with someone else who has been advised to be tested.

Dr. Fiona Hunter is a biology professor at Brock University, who also owns an off-campus lab called emDx, a division of Entomogen Inc.

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Hunter said her lab, which already handles West Nile virus tests, is awaiting certification to begin COVID testing shortly.

“We are going to start off slow with 180 samples a day, but we could ramp up potentially to 540.”

The model that Hunter said she hopes to use the lab’s resources for is called assurance testing, specifically for places like Southridge Shelter, vulnerable sectors where people live and work in close quarters.

“So it would be for asymptomatic people, people who work or live in care homes, shelters, so you pick up anyone who might be positive to prevent spreading.”

Hunter said once up and running, Entomogen would be able to provide its services to organizations in the area, including shelters and long-term-care homes, and turn around the collected samples within 24 hours.

According to Hunter, these types of assurance tests for asymptomatic people could greatly benefit many vulnerable sectors where catching a potential outbreak early is vital.

“There is definitely a need for testing. Care homes, for example, can’t get tested all the time because they are only testing if people are symptomatic, and that can be problematic because then you get these outbreaks.”

For now, Froese said Southridge Shelter will continue to follow the guidelines and best practices coming from Niagara Public Health.

“We haven’t requested or encouraged any asymptomatic testing. At this point we have defaulted to what public health advised us to do. So we wouldn’t engage in testing like that until it was directed to us.

“But we also have to be responsive. For now, we will continue the protocols we have in place as long as they continue to work, and continue to be best practice.”

In an emailed statement, Dr. Mustafa Hirji said the advice given to local organizations when it comes to best practices for COVID-19 testing come largely from the province.

“The Ministry of Health has set guidance on who should be tested; however, this is guidance and not necessarily policy.

“Public health has provided recommendations to local partners that distil the provincial guidance and incorporates any other local considerations.”

Still, Hunter hopes to soon to put her St. Catharines based lab to good use once given certification to begin testing. For her, it's about public health over profit.

“We have a very big social conscience; that is the way I have always run our company. We just want to do what we can.”

STORY BEHIND THE STORY: With a lab in St. Catharines hoping to utilize assurance testing to prevent possible COVID-19 outbreaks in vulnerable sectors, reporter Bryan Levesque spoke with a local shelter to learn more about the impact assurance testing could have on keeping both staff and clients safe.

Bryan Levesque, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Grimsby Lincoln News