A sewage sample is labelled at a Yellowknife lift station in December 2020. Meaghan Brackenbury/Cabin Radio
Sewage testing in NWT communities will now detect flu outbreaks, while the territory is also starting to test anonymized blood samples for Covid-19 antibodies.
The NWT already tests wastewater in seven communities for traces of Covid-19. The same testing will now also identify influenza and RSV (respiratory syncytial virus), another common respiratory virus.
Wastewater monitoring is generally credited with identifying outbreaks of viruses around a week earlier than clinical data would. The testing takes place in Behchokǫ̀, Fort Simpson, Fort Smith, Inuvik, Norman Wells, Tulita and Yellowknife.
Meanwhile, the territory is planning to test old blood samples going back to April this year in a bid to better understand how Covid-19 has spread.
Any names attached to existing blood samples will be removed, the territorial government said in a Wednesday news release.
The samples will be tested for the antibodies that follow either natural infection or immunization to the virus responsible for Covid-19.
This is a type of study called a seroprevalence survey. The territory said such studies were already commonplace in southern Canada.
“The planned NWT survey, funded by the Covid-19 Immunity Task Force, is believed to be the first that will exclusively target a northern territory,” the GNWT stated.
“Like other regions of Canada, the NWT is no longer tracking individual cases of Covid-19. Instead, the NWT is tracking severe outcomes of Covid-19 and monitoring wastewater for changes over time to detect high or increasing levels of Covid-19 activity in a community.
“Surveying blood samples will be another way to monitor and assess the impact of Covid-19 to optimize health system planning.”
Samples from April, June and September this year will be tested to assess the presence of Covid-19 in the NWT when restrictions lifted, when the Omicron spring wave hit, and when the BA.5 variant took over.
Another set of samples will be tested in January next year to assess the impact of the fall and winter season and the holiday period.
Dr Kami Kandola, the NWT’s chief public health officer, said the territory’s true number of Covid-19 cases was undoubtedly “much higher” than the more than 10,000 reported up till April 1.
“This information will help us understand the total population immunity and prepare for the impact of future waves of Covid-19,” Dr Kandola said.
The territory repeatedly stressed that the data of identifiable individuals will not be shared during the sampling project and all sample data will be anonymized. The broader results will be made public.
Also on Wednesday, the territory reported a range of Covid-19 figures for the summer.
Between April and the end of August, the NWT said four people had died from Covid-19. A further 35 people were hospitalized with Covid-19, the territory said, and another four required intensive care.