Saskatchewan to use ‘pool testing’ to ramp up COVID testing capacity

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Chief medical health officer Dr. Saqib Shahab said Saskatchewan’s caseload is still low, but advised people in the province to keep their social circles tight, particularly students.

“Before and after school also, I think, all of us need to maintain a small, consistent group of friends,” Shahab said. 

Saskatchewan’s chief medical health officer, Dr. Saqib Shahab, speaks to media in Regina on Sept. 17, 2020 while briefly wearing a mask as he spoke about mask usage. Photo by BRANDON HARDER /Regina Leader-Post

The province is also trying new ways of ramping up testing capacity after record numbers of people sought one last weekend.

One of those is “pool testing,” in which swabs are tested in batches rather than individually.

Saskatchewan Health Authority CEO Scott Livingstone said the SHA will now test up to eight swabs from people with no symptoms at a given time.

University of Saskatchewan biomedical professor Dr. Kyle Anderson said pool testing lets lab workers test more people more quickly. He believes it will be an important tool as the weather gets colder and the province continues to monitor possible COVID-19 cases in schools, he said.

“The number of tests that we’re going to be needing to do could double, triple, quadruple in a number of weeks.”

SASKATOON, SK--August 12/2020 -0813 news pool testing - Dr. Kyle Anderson is a father of five school-aged children and a specialist in microbiology and immunology who has posted a video on Facebook urging the province to implement pool testing of students to ensure a safe return to school in the fall. Photo taken in Saskatoon, SK on Wednesday, August 12, 2020. (Saskatoon StarPhoenix/Michelle Berg)
Dr. Kyle Anderson is a father of five school-aged children and a specialist in microbiology and immunology. Photo by Michelle Berg /Saskatoon StarPhoenix

If a pool test comes back positive, all eight samples then have to be scanned individually. Anderson said the trade-off is worth it because the vast majority come back negative. By his count, just 0.69 per cent of tests conducted in the province came back positive in the past week.

“The principle of a COVID-19 test is that it’s testing for the presence of the information of the virus. And because that’s so unique, its very unlikely that we get false positives,” Anderson said. 

Moe had challenged the SHA to have enough capacity to process 4,000 tests a day by September. Demand has never required that, but a union representing lab technicians has said the testing workload is unsustainable.

The SHA declined to say how much overtime lab workers in Saskatoon and Regina had worked since March, but said it’s recruiting for 73 positions in those facilities. Twenty-seven have been hired and 12 more are in training.

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