Two GeneXpert rapid Covid-19 testing kits are now in use at Stanton Territorial Hospital in Yellowknife, with capability of using 40 test cartridges per week, said health minister Diane Thom in the Legislative Assembly on Tuesday.
“The GeneXpert test, which is the point of care, this is rapid testing, so the turnaround time for those tests is about an hour. Right now, we have supplies in for 40 (cartridges) a week with that, and we continue to receive weekly supplies,” she said.
Sarah Cook, territorial medical director at the Northwest Territories Health and Social Services Authority (NTHSSA) said during a telephone press conference with reporters on May 20 that the rapid testing kits had arrived at Stanton hospital and were in use.
“We started using them on the weekend,” said Cook at the weekly Covid-19 briefing, alongside chief public health officer Kami Kandola, almost one week after the NWT began the first phase of its Emerging Wisely lockdown recovery strategy.
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The news about the kits came a week after Cook said the devices had not yet been validated for use.
A national shortage of cartridges for the GeneXpert kits means that for now only patients in the NWT deemed most in need of fast results will be tested with the devices.
“They’re not being rolled out for everybody who’s being swabbed. We have to prioritize how the GeneXperts are used. The hope is to eventually have enough (cartridges) to run all tests rapidly but the majority will still be going to Alberta until we have a better supply of those cartridges,” Cook explained.
The priority is on patients and staff in long-term care and corrections facilities, homeless shelters, those who are marginally housed and individuals in group homes and mining camps, said Lisa Giovanetto, NTHSSA spokesperson.
Other priority individuals are symptomatic patients in hospital without an alternative diagnosis, symptomatic people living in a cabin community and symptomatic individuals who have had known contact with a confirmed positive case of Covid-19.
Standard Covid tests must have their swabs sent to a laboratory in Alberta and it can take up to one week for results to be known, according to the Department of Health and Social Services (HSS).
“We’re doing everything we can to advocate for more tests kits in the NWT, and we’ve reached out to other provinces to consider giving us more cartridges. We want to be able to test everyone rapidly, sooner than later,” Cook said.
Kandola said the NWT is not at the point of mass testing of asymptomatic residents, a method that can be effective in slowing the spread of the virus because it identifies carriers of Covid who could be unknowingly infecting others.
For now, the testing of asymptomatic individuals will focus on those deemed highest risk, she said.
“We want to reserve tests for people who meet expanded case definition of symptoms for Covid-19. If we were going to look at screening people who are asymptomatic, we would consider the highest-risk which is travel-related risk,” said Kandola. “We’re still seeing over 1,000 (new) cases (per day) occurring in Canada. Even with that we wouldn’t screen everyone. We would consider screening of health care workers going into small communities.”
Covid treatment could ease restrictions
Emerging Wisely states that a complete return to normality in the NWT would come after a coronavirus vaccine is available, which is expected to take 12-18 months. However, Kandola said an effective treatment for Covid could allow some restrictions to be relaxed earlier than that.
“An effective anti-viral treatment that could help relax these restrictions. I was here during the H1N1 response. That was a pandemic influenza and we had an effective anti-viral Tamiflu (that shortened) the duration and severity (of the virus).”
She thanked residents for following the rules as the territory transitioned into phase one of the recovery plan, but warned against complacency.
“I want to reiterate to residents that having no active cases (of Covid) in the NWT for a while doesn’t mean that this is anywhere close to over. There is no approved vaccine or proven treatment. Until we have these we’re going to be asking a lot from you,” she said.
May 20 marked one full month since all five of the NWT’s confirmed cases of Covid-19 were deemed recovered. At least 2,048 tests have been conducted to date and the results of 31 tests were pending at the time, according to HSS.
Recalled KN95 masks
The GNWT will seek about $22,080 in reimbursement from its southern supplier for more than 5,000 KN95 masks that had been recalled by Health Canada.
Out of 7,000 masks the GNWT ordered, it had already paid for a shipment of 5,520 of them, said GNWT spokesperson Trista Haugland.
“The GNWT will not be accepting the remaining 1,480 masks that are on back order,” she said.
Health Canada issued the recall on May 11 because the ordered batch didn’t meet the 95 per cent filtration specifications for medical respirators in Canada, the GNWT said in a news release.
KN95 masks are the Chinese version of the American-made N95 masks and are designed for use in the health-care sector and in some industrial settings.
The masks were purchased for use in maintaining essential services and for working in emergency management scenarios and not for medical purposes, said Ivan Russell, director of the public safety division with the Department of Municipal and Community Affairs.