A look inside Nova Scotia’s only COVID-19 test lab

Staff at the microbiology lab at the QEII Health Sciences Centre in Halifax are doing more than a week’s worth of work every day to keep up with the growing number of Nova Scotians being tested for COVID-19.

The lab used to receive 125-170 tests a week to check for things like influenza and herpes.

Now, staff process upward of 250 tests a day, and almost all are for COVID-19, said Charles Heinstein, technical manager of microbiology with the Nova Scotia Health Authority.

As of Friday, Nova Scotia has 1,546 negative test results, 10 presumptive positive cases and five confirmed cases. Chief medical officer Dr. Robert Strang has said the province is trying to double the number of Nova Scotians being tested every day.

The lab is processing 200-250 tests a day. (David Blomme/NSHA)

Extra lab technicians and assistants have been brought in from other areas of the QEII to help. They’re all working long hours, said Heinstein.

“We’re working really hard to make sure we have enough people to make those rotations possible, so that the staff are fresh and we can sustain this for a significant amount of time,” he told CBC’s Information Morning on Friday. 

A COVID-19 case can only be confirmed after it is reviewed by the National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg, although Nova Scotia is now able to rule out negative tests.

The Halifax lab received its own COVID-19 test in February, according to Heinstein, but he added that more work is needed before staff can rely on those results.

The problem is Nova Scotia doesn’t have enough positive results, he said. 

“So we’re in the process of having enough positive samples to be able to confirm that our positives are accurate,” he said.

Charles Heinstein, technical manager of microbiology for the Nova Scotia Health Authority, says they’re working on a way to confirm tests in Nova Scotia, rather than send them to Winnipeg. (David Blomme/NSHA)

It takes time to make sure the results you’re getting are accurate every time, Heinstein said.

“If we have a new test, it’s very similar to getting a new car,” he said. “We have to take it for a test drive. We have to make sure the horn works, the breaks work.”

What happens to the swab?

Nova Scotians who’ve been in close contact with someone who’s travelled internationally, and who have a fever and/or new cough, are being told to complete an online questionnaire before calling 811. 

If tested at one of the province’s assessment centres, the nasal swab ends up with Heinstein’s team where it’s labelled and broken into several portions. 

The portions are placed in different containers, so the sample can be tested multiple times or be sent to the national lab in Winnipeg, Heinstein said. 

Staff get a result after extracting “nucleic materials” from the sample and amplifying its DNA.

Medical laboratory technologist Rob Ring analyzes a sample at the QEII lab. (David Blomme/NSHA)

Heinstein said the result is then recorded in the lab information system and communicated to people outside the lab. 

He said staff at the lab are staying positive despite the long hours.

“As a bunch, they’re a very quiet and shy group,” he said. “So I really want us to highlight the great work they’ve been putting in and how dedicated they are, and how important what they do is to the whole health-care system.”

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