The NWT’s leading doctors expect new, one-hour Covid-19 tests to arrive within the next month. Their speed and portability could help the territory begin a slow return to normality.
One type of test, named GeneXpert, will be used at Stanton Territorial Hospital. The other, made by Spartan Bioscience, will be based both at Stanton and in Inuvik, Hay River, and Fort Smith.
Each can deliver a test result in under an hour, compared to a current average wait of four days – and sometimes a week or more.
“We expect both GeneXpert and Spartan to be coming to the NWT shortly. We’re hoping to have those on the ground in the next three to five weeks,” Dr Sarah Cook, the territory’s medical director, told reporters on Wednesday.
Dr Kami Kandola, the territory’s chief public health officer, said: “What will be great about this is it will allow us to do real-time community surveillance.
“If we have the tests closer to small communities and with a one-hour turnaround, anyone with a sniffle, cough, or runny nose? We can quickly [check] if Covid-19 is circulating in the community.
“If all of our cases are travel-related and we can turn those [tests] around quickly, in areas that are Covid-19 free it may allow more relaxing of certain measures and allow certain activities to occur – because I will have a very strong sense that Covid-19 is not circulating.”
Spartan Bioscience chief executive Paul Lem earlier said rural hospitals and Indigenous communities would be given priority for his company’s new tests.
“Everyone wants them,” Lem told CBC News on Monday. “We’ve been absolutely bombarded by foreign governments and foreign corporations, but early on we realized that we are Canada’s only portable DNA analyzer company.”
Testing criteria will soon be widened
Though the NWT says it has an aggressive testing strategy – pointing to figures showing the territory is testing more people, per capita, than many other jurisdictions – the number of tests performed has fallen markedly in the past week.
Where previously 60 to 70 results were coming back per day, that number fell in the past week to an average of around 25.
Dr Kandola believes one reason for this is the end of the flu season.
“Covid-19 symptoms present like influenza,” she said. “We know the flu season is starting to go down. When the warm weather gets in, that virus tends to quietly disappear over the summer.
“Because Covid-19 symptoms are so similar … that probably accounted for the vast majority of our negative tests. Fewer and fewer people will be presenting with flu-like symptoms as the weather gets warmer.”
Kandola acknowledged there are also now fewer people entering the territory than was previously the case, reducing the need to test people for concerns related to travel.
The NWT now expects to open up its testing in the coming days – using the current tests, with longer turnaround times – “to ensure we test as many people as possible,” Kandola said.
“We are in the process of developing those clinical protocols and sending them out to healthcare providers,” the chief public health officer added. Expanding testing is likely to mean more people with even the mildest symptoms are invited to carry out a test.
“We can always test more. The more, the better,” said Kandola. “That’s something we will be releasing in the next few days.”
NWT acting ‘while we still have time’
Despite optimism about the new tests, Kandola has remained clear that restrictions will only significantly ease once southern Canada appears to have passed the peak of the pandemic’s first wave.
Global health authorities and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau have each warned any easing of restrictions is likely to be weeks away at least.
Countries may have to brace for similar restrictions to return in future if second or third waves of the virus spread once life has returned to some form of normality. Only a vaccine is likely to offer certainty when it comes to declaring the virus beaten.
However, with five cases all traced to travel, and no “community spread” – where Covid-19 passes from person to person with no obvious connection to travel or another case – the NWT is currently in a strong position, Kandola said.
Answering criticism from some residents that her orders banning gatherings are therefore unnecessary, Kandola said only by remaining ahead of the virus could the territory hope to avoid the worst.
“You need to act fast and act early otherwise it can get away from you very quickly,” she told reporters, emphasizing her belief that her decisions are proactive.
“That’s why we’re asking NWT residents and businesses to do so much right now, to seize our opportunity for containment while we still have time.”
Yes, you can drive your mom to get groceries
Kandola also moved to clear up what people can and can’t do following her introduction of new rules limiting gatherings.
All indoor gatherings of any size are now banned, even simply going to your next-door neighbour’s house. Exceptions are where you are providing essential care or childcare for a friend or relative and, even then, your time in their home must be limited to only what is necessary.
Outdoor gatherings can only continue if they involve 10 or fewer people, and if all 10 keep their two-metre distance from each other.
“These are big changes that have generated a lot of discussion,” said Kandola, who provided specific examples.
“We’re not prohibiting people from moving house. If you are using movers, that is allowed as long as you are doing everything you can to maintain physical distancing,” she said.
“Childcare in all of its forms is essential … and our order recognizes that reality,” she added, addressing questions about whether people can still look after others’ kids.
Who can and can’t be with you in your vehicle has also caused confusion.
On Tuesday, Premier Caroline Cochrane told Cabin Radio: “What I’m hearing is we are not giving enough information. My commitment is we will do a better spread on it, advertising on the measures and the exceptions.”
An NWT government webpage explaining how the restrictions apply to vehicles, among other questions and answers, has subsequently been beefed up with new wording.
“We are not going to give you a ticket for driving your mom to get groceries or helping your dad move house using your truck,” Kandola said on Wednesday.
“We understand some shared car rides are essential.
“The intent of these orders is to reduce high-risk social activities.”
Sarah Pruys contributed reporting.