HALIFAX -- The head of a large Halifax nursing home says COVID-19's spread was faster than expected, and suggests housing multiple residents per room played a role in overcoming her facility's defences.

Northwood CEO Janet Simm says the long-term care facility took many measures, from screening staff to extensive testing, yet now finds itself having to open a second quarantine area at a downtown complex with 485 residents.

Simm says the Halifax campus originally planned a 20-bed quarantine area, but must open a second special section, as 38 residents had tested positive as of Wednesday afternoon, most with mild symptoms. There are also 21 staff who have tested positive for the virus.

The administrator says while having more than one resident per room has been a provincial "norm," she and other long-term care leaders have long sought funding to allow for private rooms.

This has also been the position of the Nursing Homes of Nova Scotia Association, the group that represents non-profit homes in the province.

Simm says the data is still being collected on how the infection passed among Northwood residents, but adds having multiple residents per room may prove to be a factor.

"In the province of Nova Scotia, room-sharing is the norm and we would like to see that changed. We've been advocating for that for years and it's not just about a pandemic, it's about dignity and people having private space," she said in an interview.

"It is something we as an organization and our board continue to strive for."

Premier Stephen McNeil said many of the province's new nursing homes are being built with single rooms.

"There are some older facilities that that's not the case. Each time that they go through a renovation we would look at those.

"But right now we are focused on working with the current infrastructure we have and those who are working day in and day out to protect our loved ones. After we find our way through this pandemic, we'll look at all the protocols associated with how we continue to ensure that we protect Nova Scotians."

Northwood, the largest non-profit facility in the province, has been at the centre of a high-profile battle with the virus since it began seeing a spike in infections last week.

Simm said during an interview that the "the numbers we have were not expected."

Colin Furness, an infectious control epidemiologist at the University of Toronto, praised Northwood's extensive on-site testing, which he said appears to be catching the illness in its early stages and discovering positive cases in staff with no symptoms.

He said this is an improvement on some of the horror stories being heard about Ontario and Quebec nursing homes where multiple deaths are occurring.

But he notes "COVID-19 has outwitted everybody," by spreading through community members who show no signs of the illness and unintentionally bring it into care homes.

The pandemic has demonstrated care homes will have to find a way to physically distance their residents in the short term, and in future rethink the practice of multiple residents per room, he said.

"They're sharing air, they're sharing a bathroom, they're sharing surfaces," he said of roommates in nursing homes. "You can't put two people in same room day in and day out and expect them not to infect each other."

Michele Lowe, the director of the Nursing Homes of Nova Scotia Association, said Northwood is like many other homes around the province in that it is working with very old infrastructure.

In the short term, she said health officials are going to have to respond by reducing admissions to homes during the pandemic and keeping beds open to create more space.

Many locations don't even have enough space for a quarantine area, she added.

"It's like putting a band-aid on a bigger issue," she said.

Meanwhile, Simm said staffing remains "challenging" as 80 people are currently off work at Northwood, though 40 more have been recruited through a special pandemic initiative in recent weeks.

"In this current context, we are struggling. We continue to invest and look at new models of delivery and we're very proud of the work we do every day," she said.

-- Files from Kevin Bissett in Fredericton.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 15, 2020.