As variants spread, N.S. should 'pick up the pace' on testing, says infectious disease expert

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Infectious disease specialist Dr. Lisa Barrett would like to see testing ramp up at the Halifax International Airport. (Evan Mitsui/CBC - image credit)
Infectious disease specialist Dr. Lisa Barrett would like to see testing ramp up at the Halifax International Airport. (Evan Mitsui/CBC - image credit)

With variants on the move in many parts of Canada, an infectious disease specialist says Nova Scotia should "pick up the pace" on developing more ways to test people for COVID-19.

Dr. Lisa Barrett said she'd like to see more testing available at airports and borders for travellers coming into the province — and she also wants to explore the option of people administering their own tests.

She said home COVID-19 tests are still a work in progress, but could give people the "ability to identify their COVID infections as we go forward after vaccines.

"The details of that and getting that out there shouldn't really be what holds us up in the next number of weeks towards being very, very innovative around how we do testing," Barrett, a researcher at Dalhousie University, told CBC Radio's Information Morning on Tuesday.

Most of the recent cases of COVID-19 in Nova Scotia have been linked to travellers from outside of Atlantic Canada and international travelers.

"To get more people tested who are coming into the province, whether that be at an airport or at another border, I think is going to be a really important part of where we go and I think we should be going there very, very soon. I don't think we should wait on that issue," Barrett said.

Under federal rules, it's mandatory for international travellers to provide proof of a negative test when they arrive in Canada.

Tests are being administered at larger airports, such as Toronto and Vancouver, but a spokesperson for the Halifax Stanfield International Airport said the only passengers being tested right now in Nova Scotia are temporary foreign workers arriving by charter flight.

Tiffany Chase, director of public affairs and marketing, said the airport has been asking for testing to be implemented for months, and submitted a proposal to the provincial government back in January.

Dr. Lisa Barrett says it's important to test people with no COVID-19 symptoms to catch asymptomatic cases, especially because variants coming into the province are more transmissible.
Dr. Lisa Barrett says it's important to test people with no COVID-19 symptoms to catch asymptomatic cases, especially because variants coming into the province are more transmissible.(CBC)

Airport testing has logistical challenges: Strang

Dr. Robert Strang, Nova Scotia's chief medical officer of health, said during Tuesday's COVID-19 briefing that many travellers already get tested, including rotational workers and temporary foreign workers.

"There's a number of logistic challenges around how you would test large numbers of people without creating large backlogs," he told reporters. "Even a single plane load, the time it takes to get everybody tested can take a significant period of time."

Strang said there's also the question of whether the airport is the best place to test people coming into the province.

Dr. Robert Strang, Nova Scotia's chief medical officer of health, said there are logistical challenges to testing all domestic travellers.
Dr. Robert Strang, Nova Scotia's chief medical officer of health, said there are logistical challenges to testing all domestic travellers.(CBC News file photo)

"But just the fact that we're not doing testing for regular travellers at the airport, doesn't mean that we're not testing large numbers of travellers in different ways," he said.

The province recently introduced new recommendations for travellers during their 14-day quarantine in the province. They are now being asked to get two tests, one near the start of their isolation period, and one near the end.

Testing is for everyone, Barrett says

Nova Scotia laboratories conducted 2,110 COVID-19 tests on Monday, but Barrett said she'd like to see that number increase.

"We really, really hope that people continue to get tested regularly — and this is not for everyone else but you," she said. "This is everyone, everyone who's out there."

The province has many options available to people to get a test if they're asymptomatic or have symptoms, she said.

"There's lots of people doing their part," Barrett said. "We need more people to be getting tested regularly as far as I'm concerned."

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