Tuberculosis (TB) Screening in Long-Term Care and Retirement Homes Frequently Asked Questions

Why are TB skin tests (TSTs) no longer recommended for residents aged 65 years and over?

Routine TSTs upon admission are no longer recommended for clients 65 years of age and older. As people reach old age, the TST may become increasingly unreliable and difficult to interpret. In this population, the TST may not become positive even after a significant TB exposure. As well, unless there is a documented 2-step TST on record, testing after exposure may result in the "boosting effect" being misinterpreted as a true conversion.

Most critically, even for elderly individuals who do convert to a positive TST following a TB exposure, prophylaxis is often not possible, due to their decreased ability to tolerate the hepatotoxicity of Isoniazid (INH). For an elderly person exposed to infectious TB, the most important follow-up is ruling out active TB via careful evaluation of symptoms, CXR, and where indicated, 3 sputum samples taken at least 8 hours apart.

Clients under 65 years of age who have a positive TST are more likely to be candidates for TB prophylaxis. In addition to the symptom review for active pulmonary TB disease and chest x-rays, a 2-step TST is required for those less than 65 years of age, unless a previous TST is known to be positive.

The Canadian Tuberculosis Standards, 8th edition (CTS 2022) recommends that residents of Long-Term Care Institutions undergo the following:

  • An assessment of likelihood of respiratory TB should be done on or before admission to a long-term care home.
  • A symptom screen to rule out active TB should be done, preferably prior to, and on admission to a long-term care home.
  • A posteroanterior and lateral chest x-ray should be performed if a resident is symptomatic, and the resident should be referred for medical assessment if indicated.
  • Routine tuberculin skin testing on (or prior to) admission and periodic tuberculin skin tests (such as annually) are not recommended for residents.
  • If a resident has had exposure to respiratory TB, the need for testing should be individualized as part of contact tracing.

What is a 2-step skin test for TB?

This consists of 2 TSTs usually performed within 1 to 4 weeks of each other. A 2-step TST, rather than a single TST, is generally only indicated at the initial assessment of someone who will be having repeat TSTs at regular intervals. For example, a 2-step TST is recommended for health care workers at the start of employment, to help reduce the chance of a newly-positive TST in the future being misinterpreted as conversion when the TST is repeated. The 2-step TST needs to be performed only once if properly done and documented (Canadian Tuberculosis Standards 7th Ed.CTS 2014).

Over decades, the immune response (i.e. a positive TST) related to a remote TB or BCG exposure can go "dormant". A single TST may elicit a negative result; however, re-stimulates the immune recognition so that a 2nd TST at a later time will elicit a much greater response. The reason for a 2-step TST is to detect this "booster effect" at the beginning of TST monitoring (using a 2-step TST), as otherwise it could be confused later on with a true TST conversion.

What is recommended for residents being transferred from another facility?

Prior to transfer, the resident should be carefully reassessed for signs and symptoms of active TB, including failure to thrive. A posteroanterior and lateral chest x-ray should be performed if a resident is symptomatic, and the resident should be referred for medical assessment if indicated. If there are any indications of possible active TB, a repeat chest x-ray, sputum testing, and any other necessary investigations should be done to rule out active pulmonary TB disease before the resident is transferred.

What if a new employee/volunteer had a 2-step TST done, but the 1st and 2nd steps were done more than 4 weeks apart?

According to the Canadian TB Standards, the 1st and 2nd step of a 2-step TST should be done 1-4 weeks apart. Less than 1 week does not allow enough time to elicit the phenomenon, more than 4 weeks allows
the possibility of a true TST conversion to occur if the person had an exposure to infectious TB in the interim. However, the 2nd test can be accepted up to 1 year later as long as no exposure to active TB occurred within the time in between.

What if an employee/volunteer has never had a 2-step TST done, but had a 1-step TST done within this past year?

If the previous TST result was positive (≥ 10 mm), no further skin testing should be done. The person should proceed with a physical exam and a chest x-ray to rule out active TB disease.

If the previous TST was negative, another 1-step can now be done and accepted as the 2nd step of a 2-step TST as long as it is within a 1-year period from the time of the 1st step. It is important to assess the likelihood that the employee was exposed to active TB since the last TST. If an exposure is suspected, the 2nd TST should be done at least 8 weeks after the TB exposure in order to provide a reliable baseline for future assessments.

A resident had a CXR done 2 months ago but now has symptoms that could be due to active pulmonary TB. Should a repeat CXR be done prior to admission to our facility?

Yes. If the resident has symptoms suggestive of active TB (i.e. cough lasting longer than three weeks, unexplained weight loss, fever, chills, night sweats, fatigue), a current chest x-ray should be done to rule out active pulmonary TB disease. In addition, 3 sputum samples should be collected at least eight hours apart and submitted to the Public Health Laboratory for testing (Acid Fast Bacilli and Culture). Before admitting the resident, all sputum results should be negative and active pulmonary TB disease ruled out. If the resident has already been admitted to the facility, notify the Eastern Ontario Health Unit.

If a staff person has received the BCG vaccine in the past do they still need a TST?

Yes. TB skin testing is required for staff who have received BCG vaccines in the past. People vaccinated with BCG may have a positive TB skin test if the BCG was given after infancy. However it is also possible for this positive TST to have been caused by TB infection, especially if the person was born in or travelled to a country with high rates of TB. It is worth remembering that countries with much higher rates of TB than Canada also use BCG routinely. Thus, adults with a positive skin test who had a BCG vaccination should still be carefully evaluated for possible latent TB infection (LTBI), and be offered treatment for LTBI if appropriate.

The following resources may be helpful in interpreting a positive TST:

Source: Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit