Alberta changes COVID-19 testing protocols to focus on individuals who are most at risk

Alberta health officials are implementing new testing protocols for suspected cases of COVID-19, giving priority to people who are most at risk of developing extreme symptoms or infecting others in the community. 

A key difference in the new protocol, announced by Alberta Health Services early Monday, is that travellers who returned to Alberta after March 12 and have mild symptoms will no longer be tested for the virus,

Instead, returning travellers are being instructed to self-isolate at home while the priority for testing moves to Albertans who are at the highest risk for local exposure, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta's chief medical officer of health, said in the news release.

"This is consistent with the approach happening across Canada. It will enable us to strategically use our testing resources," she said. 

The most important thing anyone can do if they have mild symptoms isn't to get tested – it's to stay home and self-isolate. - Dr. Deena Hinshaw

"The most important thing anyone can do if they have mild symptoms isn't to get tested — it's to stay home and self-isolate."

Testing will be prioritized for people with symptoms who fall within any of these groups:

  • People hospitalized with respiratory illness.
  • Residents of continuing-care or similar facilities.
  • People who returned from travelling abroad between March 8 and March 12 (before self-isolation protocols were in place).
  • Health-care workers with respiratory symptoms.

The statement confirmed that testing will still be done for anyone who has already been told they would get tested.

Number of travellers decreasing

The change was expected, said Dr. Mark Joffe, Alberta Health Services' vice-president and medical director for northern Alberta.

As the number of travellers returning to the province wanes, it makes sense to focus on vulnerable populations and health-care workers, he told CBC Radio's Edmonton AM on Monday morning.

"The thing is, if people are feeling sick, they need to stay home," Joffe said. "We don't need a test for those individuals." 

The biggest frustration from the perspective of most Albertans will be that lack of certainty as to whether they have COVID-19 or some other bug, said Dr. Lynora Saxinger, an infectious diseases expert at the University of Alberta.

"It doesn't practically change the management for someone," Saxinger said Monday.

"If you have symptoms you should be staying home, you should be self-isolating, you should be avoiding airspace with other people, you should be wiping down high-touch surfaces. And if you get worse, you should call and ... at that point testing would be offered."

She called the government's change a practical response to the heavy demand worldwide for swabs and reagents.

As of Sunday afternoon, Alberta had completed nearly 27,000 tests for the virus, the highest number per capita in Canada.

Saxinger said Alberta's high rate of testing so early in the epidemic provided valuable data about confirmed cases, which the province then used to guide its public health response.

With tests now being offered to a more focused group, the quality of that data will suffer, she said.

"In a perfect world, we test everyone and we know the exact number of real cases, she said. "There might be people that we'd like to test but can't test, so who would not be counted as a confirmed positive."

Alberta confirmed  33 new cases on Sunday, bringing the total in the province to 259. Of those cases, 18 are in hospital and seven have been admitted to intensive care units.

There has been one Alberta fatality linked to COVID-19 in the province, an Edmonton man in his 60s who died on March 18, less than one week after being admitted to a hospital intensive care unit.

Three people in the province have recovered from the virus.