Nova Scotia will soon have the ability to test for COVID-19 in the province, which will mean more timely results, according to the province’s chief medical officer of health.
As of Thursday morning, Dr. Robert Strang said 57 people had been tested for the novel coronavirus, and all came back negative. Atlantic Canada declared it first presumptive case on Wednesday, a woman in southeastern New Brunswick who had travelled to France.
Currently, when someone gets tested at one of Nova Scotia’s eight COVID-19 assessment sites, a swab is taken and processed at a lab in Halifax, Strang said. The swab then goes to the national lab in Winnipeg to get a result.
Strang told CBC’s Information Morning that Nova Scotia is developing capacity to do the tests in the province “within the next few days, up to a week.”
“I think we have the right steps in place with … 811 screening, then the assessment centres and we’re building capacity in our lab,” he said. “Once we get that testing here, we’ll be able to turn tests around in a much more timely manner.”
Assessment sites opened at eight clinics around the province on Tuesday, and the Nova Scotia Health Authority says people must first call 811 before showing up at one of them.
“We’re rapidly increasing the number of people we’re testing, which is exactly what we need to be doing as the virus comes closer,” Strang said.
There are still no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Nova Scotia, but Strang said the province is preparing for its arrival.
Symptoms of COVID-19 are very similar to the seasonal flu and common cold and include a fever, cough and difficulty breathing.
Strang said the best defence is for people to practise good hygiene by washing their hands, disinfecting surfaces and avoiding touching their face.
The World Health Organization is now calling the outbreak a pandemic, but Strang said that “doesn’t make any practical difference.”
“A pandemic is just really a word that describes spread to most or all parts of the globe,” he said. “We knew this was likely for a number of weeks, and it doesn’t change all the things we’re planning for and the possible consequences of COVID-19 when it gets here in Nova Scotia.”
How to self-isolate at home
Strang said if you, or someone in your family, develops a new cough or fever, the advice is to stay at home. He said anyone who’s travelled outside of Canada and has a fever or cough should call 811 and they could be tested at one of the assessment sites.
He said there’s a difference between quarantine and self-isolation — quarantine is when somebody has been exposed to the virus, but is not yet sick, and isolation is when somebody is sick.
If someone in your family develops symptoms, Strang said they should minimize their contact with other people in the house, if possible.
“So ideally people have a separate room. They’re avoiding close face-to-face contact with people — that less than two-metre space,” he said. “If they do have to be in close face-to-face contact, somebody who is symptomatic may need to wear a mask.”
He said one of the challenges moving forward will be how to care for people in their homes to minimize exposure to others.
Can you get the virus twice?
Strang said because COVID-19 is a new virus, a lot remains unknown.
“There’s no evidence really that food is a major way that this virus is spread,” he said. “It’s more direct contact with people and then the virus being on what we call a high-touch surface … that people then get on their hands and then infect themselves.”
It’s possible for a respiratory virus like COVID-19 to remain on a surface for a number of days, Strang said. That’s why he said it’s very important to wipe down surfaces and avoid touching your face.
He said once people are exposed to a specific strain of a virus or bacterial infection, they usually develop an immunity to it.
Strang said it’s likely Nova Scotia will get community spread over the coming weeks, as has happened in B.C. He said health officials in the province are working closely with counterparts elsewhere in the country to try and get ahead of the virus.
But Strang said knowing when to impose restrictions on what people can do is a tough call to make, and must be weighed against the social and economic implications.
“Myself and my colleagues across the country are struggling with this every day — what is the right place we land, and it shifts every day,” Strang said. “We need to get stronger and stronger over time, no doubt. But when is the right time to go to the next level of intervention?”
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