Province to incorporate a number of measures to increase COVID-19 testing capacity

Saskatchewan's Chief Medical Health Officer Dr. Saqib Shahab. (Government of Saskatchewan/Screenshot)

The province announced a number of measures being put in place to increase testing capacity for COVID-19 on Tuesday. Measures include hiring for Saskatchewan Health Authority labs, asymptomatic pooled testing and an increase in specialized GeneXpert testing.

In a release, the provincial government explained that the SHA would increase the number of GeneXpert tests being performed provincially from 200 per week to 1,200 per week in early October due to increased supplies from the vendor.

The GeneXpert is a molecular testing platform located in more than 20 locations throughout the province, providing more immediate diagnostics on-site.  It significantly expands testing capacity while improving turn-around times.

“This will significantly expand testing capacity while improving turnaround times as it does not require the transportation of the swabs to the provincial lab. Increased testing and contract tracing together with everyone in Saskatchewan continuing to take their personal responsibility to keep themselves as well as those around them safe. That’s how we will continue to keep our case numbers low and manageable throughout this season and into the winter,” Premier Scott Moe said during a press conference Tuesday afternoon.

As well, the SHA is hiring for 76 positions, with 27 people hired to date. The recruitment and training for the remaining positions is on going.

Beginning this week, SHA labs will implement pooled testing of asymptomatic swabs, allowing laboratories to test more specimens with fewer testing materials. This will increase testing output.

Pooled testing means combining a number of specimens and conducting one laboratory test to detect COVID-19.  If any pooled test produces a positive result, all samples within the batch will be retested individually before results are released.

Testing is already increasing in the province, though it has not yet reached the increased threshold of 4,000 tests per day.

“The Saskatchewan Health Authority continues to increase testing capacity in our province. This past weekend we had our two highest testing days to date; we had over 5,000 tests over these two days,” Moe said.

Moe thanked all of the individuals working at the mobile testing sites at schools and all other testing facilities as well as at the provincial lab.

There has been a rise in anti-mask sentiment in the province over the last few months and Moe is disappointed that anyone would be stigmatized for any reason.

 “We should not stigmatize people in our society for any reason whether that is wearing a mask or what that may be. The COVID-19 pandemic is not a farce, it is a virus that is spread across the world,” he said.

Moe explained that the effort has been methodical to control from the beginning. He credited people for being able to follow public health orders and keep transmission low compared to other places in Canada and around the world.

“I would ask all of the people across the province to understand that COVID is real. It is a real threat to not only our economy but it is a threat to our family members. In particular we have seen COVID does move into places with vulnerable populations like our long term care homes,” he said.

Earlier he clarified that the vast majority of people in the province are doing their best to follow the direction of Chief Medical Health Officer Dr. Saqib Shahab and the SHA for the last six months.

“When we get in trouble and where we get in trouble is when people step outside of this advice and direction. There have been some instances where the rules were not followed … and that has led to some outbreaks in this province so we need to continue to be careful,” Moe said.

Throughout the press conference, Moe and Shahab emphasized that we should continue to limit gathering sizes, keep physical distancing in place, wash hands and wear a mask where appropriate.

“If you are feeling sick in any way you should stay at home, you shouldn’t go to work, you shouldn’t go to school, you shouldn’t go shopping, you shouldn’t go to a friend’s house. I know people of this province are quite tough. When we are feeling a little under the weather we are used to just powering through it, if you will,” Moe said.

“I think it is important that even before that if any of us is symptomatic we need to isolate, stay home, get tested and I think that’s really important to keep our transmission numbers low,” Shahab said.

“We will be reviewing because a runny nose that is seasonal and on it’s own it is not a good predictor of COVID, a runny nose with other symptoms could actually be a lower level predictor of COVID. The most consistent predictors of COVID are fever, a sore throat, pain in the throat and coughing,”

Shahab would not call the recent spike in cases a second wave. Shahab explained that the peak in cases in Saskatoon is related to two or three events.

“So it’s more of a slow burn with a sporadic increase in cases because our overall case numbers are low these small increases can give that cyclical pattern, but if you break it down to parts of the province you can explain why that is so and my final comment would be that we have to watch our test positive numbers and keep our testing contact tracing capacity high and watch what percentage of the cases (aren’t explained). Those are the metrics we need to watch,” Shahab said.

He explained that if you are asymptomatic you should monitor as opposed to self-isolate.

He reminded that people who go out with symptoms could have many contacts. Shahab also reiterated that people should stay home if they have any symptoms. Shahab explained that the start of the new school year has also been a success so far with some items to be wary of.

“We have reports of high school students gathering together in groups before and after school,” he said.

 “Before and after school people also need to maintain a similar group of friends. Try to avoid random mixing with a large number of people. I think that is going to be really important over the fall for all of us including young adults in high school and other adults as well. Because that is where a lot of jurisdictions have seen an increase,” Shahab explained.

Moe addressed the fact that masks in schools, a decision made at a division level in the re-open plan has been successful but there can still be challenges.

“I think it could only stand to reason that we will have transmission in our schools at some point but we have not yet. I think it would speak to the fact that we would have a fairly low transmission rate when that would occur. Kudos to our school divisions and kudos to our educators and all of those involved in insuring a safe return to our classrooms,” Moe said.

“We have been very clear about mask use for many months now across the province. If you are able to create that physical distance … you are not required to wear a mask. If you are unable to keep that distance you should have a mask available and you be able to very quickly put that on to protect not only yourself but to protect those around you,” Moe said.