There are Valuable Uses for our Underemployed Covid-19 Testing Capability

In late May, northern New Brunswick experienced an outbreak of new infections, caused by a doctor irresponsibly failing to self-isolate after returning from Quebec. The biggest concentration of new cases was in a nursing home; two of its clients became New Brunswick’s first Covid-related deaths.

The outbreak was contained by a massive program of contact tracing and testing. As of Thursday, New Brunswick was down to three active cases. While containment was being pursued, restrictions were tightened in the affected area but not in the rest of the province. This gives reason for public health authorities to believe that they can contain an outbreak if it is identified early.

This week, Nova Scotia had its first new cases since June 9th. They were people who had recently travelled and were already self-isolating. A widening outbreak from that situation is highly unlikely. As with the more dramatic New Brunswick example, the system appears to be working.

The system in Nova Scotia includes the ability to do 1,200 or more tests in a day. In recent weeks that has been lightly used, often at less than a third of capacity.

Can some of that capacity be deployed to help with challenges in the economy?

  1. Out-of-province university students have become crucial to the viability of our universities. Their absences in September is causing well-managed universities to be experiencing huge deficits.

    As it stands, students from outside Atlantic Canada would have to quarantine for 14 days each time they came back for a new term. Many of those from outside Canada would have trouble getting here at all.

    For the Canadian students, we could provide a test upon arrival and again after enough days have passed for a second negative test to be determinative.

    The university community would need to provide and manage appropriate quarantined living spaces both for those with negative tests and those who tested positive.

    International students coming from countries showing successful responses to the pandemic (so not today’s USA or Brazil, for example) could be handled the same way.

    Given these measures, it should be possible to have more in-person teaching.

  2. Children are less likely to get the disease and will not get as sick as adults. Cases of children dying from the virus are extremely rare.

    Elementary school children need in-person teaching, and their parents need a break. In many countries, schools are now cautiously reopening: in Germany, Denmark, Vietnam, New Zealand, and China, children are mostly back behind their desks.

    If our active case count remains very low, it should be possible for our elementary schools to operate with full classrooms with regular random testing of teachers and students.

    Constrain school athletics except those that allow distancing such as certain track and field events. Lots of sanitizer and hand washing.

    Test drive in a handful of willing schools before going more broadly.

    Equip teachers with masks and allow older teachers to opt-out.

  3. Likewise, let daycares operate at full capacity, again with random testing of infants and staff. Equip staff with masks.
  4. Immigration is a key driver of our economic growth, with much of it coming from the provincial nominee programs. As US President Trump works to block skilled workers from retaining work visas, there is a great opportunity for Canada to attract and retain talent. Facilitate nominees with a testing and quarantining regimen like that for university students.

Three caveats:

  1. This is written at a time that our number of active cases is negligible. If that number grows significantly, say during a second wave, there will be a pullback on some of the measures.
  2. The biggest worry would be asymptomatic young people infecting granny. Visitor access to seniors’ facilities or homes will need to be tightly managed, including the use of masks.
  3. No doubt there are flaws in the details proposed above. Readers will have valuable ideas for improvement, as will the more knowledgeable minds in Public Health.

The point is that we need a proactive approach to reopening our economy. We need initiatives far more energized than the tepid efforts of the public schools community this spring.

Done right, this can deliver a better learning experience for our children and make Nova Scotia an attractive destination for university students and talented immigrants.


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