COVID-19: N.S. microbiology lab plays catch-up with backlog, processes record number of tests

Click to play video: 'Backlog of COVID testing being cleared out in N.S' Backlog of COVID testing being cleared out in N.S
WATCH: About 45,000 test results were still waiting to be processed last week at the provincial microbiology lab in Halifax, but after a weekend of around the clock shifts, the backlog is being cleared out. Jesse Thomas has more – May 3, 2021

Nova Scotia’s microbiology lab processed a record 17,092 COVID-19 samples Sunday, something that is nothing short of remarkable, according to Dr. Todd Hatchette, the chief of microbiology for Nova Scotia Health.

“It’s an incredible feat to actually scale up to that much volume,” said Hatchette.

On Friday during the provincial COVID-19 briefing, Premier Iain Rankin revealed that Nova Scotia had a backlog of 45,000 COVID-19 cases waiting to be processed at the provincial microbiology lab in Halifax.

Then, over the weekend, health-care specialists and lab teams worked around the clock to catch up on the testing backlog while bringing more staff on board, said Hatchette.

It’s anticipated the lab will be caught up by the end of the day Monday, with a return to 48-hour turnarounds on testing results.

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Read more: Dalhousie scientists ‘ready and willing’ to help with COVID PCR testing backlog

“As for the backlog, you’ve got to sort of think of lab testing like water in a pipe,” said Hatchette.

“Once you turn off the tap, there’s still water in the pipe, so once we get through those tests that were remaining, we just continually test the ones that continually come in, so there’s always a bit of a backlog with lab testing.”

Most of the backlogged samples leftover were from April 30, with roughly 4,000 samples to be caught up on, said Hatchette, suggesting the sheer volume of tests that came in were the cause of the backlog.
There were roughly 4,000 samples remaining to be tested Monday. “So after today, we should be relatively caught up,” Hatchette said.

To help clear the backlog, the provincial lab brought in 70 extra staff from within other Nova Scotia Health departments, along with Dalhousie University professors and graduate students in the microbiology field, said Hatchette.

“We had 20,000 specimens submitted in one day,” said Hatchette. “You can imagine it’s like pouring a bathtub into a sink: it just tends to overflow.”

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Prior to the third wave, the provincial microbiology lab was set up to process anywhere from 2,500 to 5,000 tests per day. From a staffing perspective, the lab needed time to ramp up and redevelop its processes to meet the demand.

“That usually takes two to three days to scale up and that has been done,” said Hatchette.

On Friday, the province’s top doctor said they were temporarily closing asymptomatic testing at all of the Nova Scotia Health primary assessment sites in order to help the lab deal with the backlog.

“Nova Scotians have all done what we’ve asked you to do and more and we are dealing with a very large volume of tests,” said Dr. Robert Strang, Nova Scotia’s Chief Medical Officer of Health.

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Dr. Lisa Barrett believes that message was misunderstood by Nova Scotians and those living in the Halifax region, as it resulted in fewer people showing up for rapid asymptomatic pop-up testing at sites across the greater Halifax region.

“I suspect people thought that meant don’t go out for testing at all,” said Barrett, indicating rapid pop-up testing sites that only cater to asymptomatic testing, saw half the people show up to be tested than the previous weekend.

“We want to see lots of people out getting tested who don’t have symptoms,” said Barrett. “Even if you had a test a week ago, it’s about time to get another test because it could be 14-days into a virus incubation period and we want people to get tested twice in that two-week period.”

Read more: A Halifax woman battling COVID-19 in hospital and her warning for others

Barrett says the asymptomatic pop-up testing clinics are working and continue to identify a handful of COVID-19 cases each day, especially in the Halifax region.

Still, Nova Scotia is testing more people per capita than any other lab in the country, said Hatchette, adding they hope to keep staff levels up at the provincial lab for the next month at least.

The provincial microbiology lab processed more than 130,000 COVID-19 samples in April, which is more tests completed than during the entire first nine months of the pandemic, he noted.

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Click to play video: 'Here’s what COVID-19 testing looks like at Nova Scotia’s QEII' Here’s what COVID-19 testing looks like at Nova Scotia’s QEII
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