The NWT government is joining a line of jurisdictions waiting to acquire technology that will significantly speed up testing for Covid-19.
At the moment, the territory says the average time for a test result to come back is around four days after a swab was taken. Some residents have reported wait times of a week or more.
The territory’s chief public health officer says a new type of test being purchased by the NWT government will see results within the hour, instead.
“We’re looking at a faster test,” Dr Kami Kandola confirmed to Cabin Radio on Friday.
“We’re in the process of purchasing that technology, it’s new. Information is always evolving,” Dr Kandola said.
The new kits still use the same basic method as the current tests: real-time reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction, known as PCR.
Processing times for the current tests can range from a few hours to two days. However, the NWT’s results take additional time as the samples must be sent south to Alberta for lab analysis.
Dr Sarah Cook, the territory’s medical director, said the time for that result to come back “depends partly on transportation and partly on the volume of tests being processed in Alberta. That’s something we don’t have control over and it’s variable, day by day.”
Dr Cook said the new tests can be processed in the Northwest Territories, cutting out the time currently spent sending samples to Alberta and awaiting results.
Kandola told Cabin Radio tests with a one-hour turnaround time will be available “as soon as we get the machines and media” to conduct them.
“Hopefully within the next several weeks,” she said.
The acquisition of new tests doesn’t necessarily mean who gets tested will change.
The NWT currently doesn’t ordinarily test people who don’t display any symptoms of Covid-19.
There is a global rush to acquire new and quicker testing technology as it comes out. Companies worldwide are racing to devise faster and more reliable tests.
Speed can make a difference when it comes to using Covid-19 tests as a means of controlling the outbreak.
At the moment, an average turnaround time of four days means the NWT is constantly operating with a picture of how things looked four days ago, rather than how they look now.
Getting results in an hour, by contrast, would provide same-day information not just to anxious people waiting to see if they have the virus, but also to epidemiologists desperate for data to better understand Covid-19’s spread.
Testing can play a vital role in the identification of community spread – a term for what happens when cases of the virus can’t be easily traced back to travel or another infected person.
So far, the NWT’s four cases all have direct links to travel. No cases of community spread have been uncovered.
Even when the new tests arrive – but especially in the weeks before they do – Cook said it was critically important that residents keep up physical distancing and hand-washing habits.
Cook said the current delay of four days means measures that give the virus no chance to spread could make all the difference.
“Even if there is a delay when we identify community spread,” she said, “we want to make sure that spread is not rapid.”
More drive-through sites
Meanwhile, efforts continue to make testing easier to access.
Yellowknife has had a drive-through Covid-19 testing site since March. Newer sites have now opened in Behchokǫ̀ and Fort Smith, NNSL reported.
As of Saturday, almost 1,300 swabs had been taken across the territory. Up-to-date regional numbers were not immediately available.
Of those swabs, exactly, 1,200 test results have come back negative. Four were positive – one of those has since recovered – and 76 remain pending.