Unprecedented weekend hunt for COVID-19 shattered testing records in N.B. and elsewhere

Determined to contain an outbreak of the COVID-19 virus in northern New Brunswick and to calm an anxious local community, provincial health officials unleashed testing resources in the Campbellton area over the weekend they had long claimed to possess but had never been able to demonstrate.

Over three days ending Sunday, 4,293 individual samples were taken and processed from around the province, three-quarters of those in health zone 5 around Campbellton in the heart of the recent outbreak.  

It was nearly triple the number of tests New Brunswick has carried out during any other three-day stretch of the pandemic and the 2,290 samples processed from tests collected on Sunday now stands as a single-day record surpassed only by Canada's largest provinces.

"These professionals are all doing an incredible job," said Premier Blaine Higgs during a special briefing Sunday afternoon about those involved in the unprecedented testing effort,

"We are showing we can deal with these situations quickly when they do occur. That is going to be critical moving forward."

People in the Campbellton area have been uneasy since the diagnosis of a new case of COVID-19 on May 21, which at the time was the region's first in more than five weeks. That was followed by 11 more cases over the next 10 days, all related to a local doctor who had contracted the virus outside the province and did not self-isolate upon return.  

Testing for everyone

Shane Fowler/CBC

A large number of potential community and health care contacts made by the doctor and others convinced public health officials to open testing to anyone in the local area concerned about themselves.  

"We were looking very widely," said New Brunswick's chief medical officer of health Dr. Jennifer Russell Sunday. "We had people coming out in great numbers."

Nearly 3,000 people eventually appeared at makeshift testing centres at arenas in both Campbellton and Dalhousie, in addition to others being tested in nearby health care facilities. In the end more than 10 per cent of the population of Zone 5 had a test by the end of the weekend.

Medical personnel, aided by reinforcements from Ambulance New Brunswick and the Extra-Mural nursing care program managed the surge of nervous locals who openly expressed appreciation for the effort being made.

"Everything is going fast. People are doing a great job here. We're lucky we have this here in Restigouche," said Junior Michaud, one of hundreds who lined up on Friday for his test.

Significant achievement

CBC

The execution of more than 4,200 tests in three days across the province, including 3,132 from Zone 5 is a significant achievement, especially given the scarcity of evidence prior to the weekend New Brunswick could mount a testing effort that large, particularly in that zone.

Previously, the most tests New Brunswick had processed in a single day was 586, back on April 17, one of what had been a string of mediocre testing achievements by the province 

At the beginning of the pandemic it took New Brunswick 12 days to test its first 1,000 people following the March 11 diagnosis of the first case, seven days longer than it took Nova Scotia.   

 

In early April, Higgs warned that despite lower testing numbers than the Canadian average the province had only limited supplies left and could run out "within about five days" if testing increased to 1,000 per day.

Then in May, testing in New Brunswick fell below the "minimum" threshold of 2,300 to 2,500 per week set earlier in the month by Dr. Russell, with tests particularly light in Zone 5.  

Although sitting along the Quebec border, it was averaging just 80 tests per week in May prior to the discovery of that first new case in Campbellton May 21.

Despite that spotty testing track record Dr. Russell had been confidently claiming for several weeks the province could handle a heavy load if necessary.

Demand not seen before

In mid-April, when Nova Scotia processed more than 1,400 tests in one day compared to 250 in New Brunswick, Russell insisted the same could be done in the province, if circumstances required.

"We absolutely can test at that level, we just haven't had the demand,"  said Russell.

In retrospect, that was an understatement.  

The 2,290 tests collected and processed in New Brunswick Sunday, is higher than any single-day total achieved by any province in Atlantic Canada and more than some other larger provinces including Saskatchewan and Manitoba.

The premier gave widespread credit for making it happen.

"I am grateful to all the people who have been working behind the scenes to set up additional testing sites including Extra-Mural and ambulance New Brunswick," said Higgs  

"The team at Campbellton Regional Laboratory led by Mr. Yves Goudreau has been rapidly testing and co-ordinating the delivery of an unprecedented amount of samples. They are working closely with the lab team at Georges L. Dumont hospital in Moncton which is led by medical microbiologist Dr. Louise Thibault."  

No member of the public who presented themselves for testing during the weekend was found to have the virus.