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P.E.I. testing focused on COVID-19 symptoms, in midst of reports of asymptomatic spread

Chief Health Officer Heather Morrison
Chief Health Officer Heather Morrison - Government of Prince Edward Island

Despite recent research suggesting asymptomatic carriers of the coronavirus (COVID-19 strain) can spread it to others, testing in P.E.I. continues to focus on individuals, both travelers and non-travellers, who are self-reporting symptoms.

A new study, published by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control suggested that around 10 per cent of coronavirus infections could be traced to people who carry the virus, but who have not yet developed its symptoms. Research and testing from other countries has also suggested widespread testing of individuals who have not yet show symptoms could help reduce transmission.

During a media briefing Monday, Dr. Heather Morrison said staff of the Island’s Chief Public Health Officer are monitoring research and developments related to asymptomatic transmission. But she said testing is still focused on individuals who have developed symptoms of the virus, such as cough, fever or difficulty breathing.

"The sensitivity of a test, if you test somebody who is asymptomatic, is just over 60 per cent. If you test someone who has symptoms, it's up closer to 95 per cent," Morrison said.

"Asymptomatic transmission is not driving the epidemic at this time. But we are certainly watching that.”

No new cases of the coronavirus were reported Monday afternoon. P.E.I. currently has 22 cases, 8 of which have recovered. All cases have been related to travel and there has been no known community transmission to date. As of Monday, 1,374 tests have been conducted and the drive-through testing sites in Charlottetown and Summerside have been seeing increasing volume. In the last week, 605 tests have been completed Province-wide.

Since March 23, testing for the virus has focused on Islanders who exhibit symptoms of the virus, including cough, fever and difficulty breathing, whether they have travelled or not.

Since mid-March, contact tracing of known cases has involved testing individuals with no symptoms who were in close contact with an individual who tested positive. These individuals are tested if they were in contact 48 hours prior to this individual developing symptoms, even if they don’t have symptoms. Targeted testing has also focused on asymptomatic healthcare workers as well as some residents of long-term care homes as a precaution.

On Friday, Morrison said the Chief Public Health Office is considering pro-active testing of long-term care home staff, regardless of whether they exhibit symptoms.

The criteria for who is and who is not tested for the virus varies from province to province. But Morrison said P.E.I. has been more open about testing in some respects than other provinces.

The decision to open up testing to all Islanders who experienced symptoms, regardless of whether they had travelled recently, was made weeks ago, while Nova Scotia began allowing this over the weekend. Aside from Nova Scotia, only P.E.I., Nunavut and Saskatchewan have opened up testing to members of the general public who are experiencing symptoms.

"Our goal is to test, at this point, anyone who has symptoms, mild symptoms and looking for some of that community transmission in those cases. But also, for instance, in close contacts of cases who may not have symptoms," Morrison said on Monday.

Morrison also said the two-metre physical distancing practices that have been put in place in the Province are likely a best defense against the virus.

Morrison cautioned Islanders against relaxing physical distancing measures in the face of the lack of new cases of the virus in recent days.

"It is not a signal to stop or slow down our public health measures. The worst of this is not over," Morrison said.

"If we ease up now, we will not have the impact we need to protect Islanders and our system.”

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