Alberta to drop COVID isolation guidance, close testing centres, allow more bivalent boosters

Starting this week, people living in senior care homes can start recieving another bivalent boost.  (Kristopher Radder/The Associated Press - image credit)
Starting this week, people living in senior care homes can start recieving another bivalent boost. (Kristopher Radder/The Associated Press - image credit)

Alberta is making significant changes to its COVID-19 measures, scaling back on some protections while allowing additional bivalent booster doses for those in certain high-risk groups.

Scott Johnston, press secretary for the health minister, shared the changes Wednesday with CBC News. They cover testing, bivalent booster doses and isolation guidance. 

The province says the changes are a step toward a "more sustainable approach to COVID-19."

Bivalent boosters 

According to Johnston, additional bivalent booster doses will soon be available for Albertans who are at higher risk of severe outcomes.

Starting on April 3, Albertans 65 and older and those 18 and older with immunocompromising conditions will be able to book and receive additional booster shots.

Before that, those living in senior care homes will be able to receive additional boosters. Those are set to begin being administered this week. 

According to Johnston, Alberta Health's decisions on freeing up the booster shots were made based on guidance from the National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI) and the Alberta Advisory Committee on Immunization.

Earlier this month, NACI updated its guidance for the additional boosters, advising that they should be offered to those in high-risk groups six or more months after the last vaccine dose or infection.

Jonathan Villeneuve/Radio-Canada
Jonathan Villeneuve/Radio-Canada

Craig Jenne, an associate professor in the department of microbiology, Immunology and Infectious diseases at the University of Calgary, said data has shown that immunity wanes in the months after people receive a vaccine shot. 

"So what we're seeing right now is an availability of boosters to top up that immunity in the people who are most at risk," he said. 

Changes to testing, isolation guidance   

Alberta Health Service is set to close its COVID-19 testing facilities on March 31. Because of this, the province is changing testing recommendations.

Most Albertans, including health-care workers, will be expected to rely on rapid antigen tests, Johnston said. Rapid tests are available for free at pharmacies across the province.

Dr. Stephanie Smith, infectious disease physician at the University of Alberta Hospital, said the changes are a move toward rolling COVID into the management of all respiratory viruses.

"I think to a certain extent it makes sense. I mean, we have limited resources in terms of funding," she said.

"These testing facilities are expensive, and I think the vast majority of people aren't using testing facilities anymore. So they're becoming more and more expensive per person that gets tested there."

She added that people should still stay home if they are sick.

"I think that we need to still consider that small but significant vulnerable population when we're kind of looking at how we manage COVID going forward," she said. 

To Jenne, the closing of the testing facilities is disappointing because it will limit information on the virus and how it's affecting the community. 

"It limits our ability to track, for example, variants and other critical features that allow us to perhaps stay ahead of future waves or future variants that might emerge in the province," he said. 

However, Jenne noted that data will still be collected through wastewater testing and diagnostic tests in hospitals.

The province's new changes also drop the recommendation that people with COVID-19 isolate for five days. Health-care workers are an exception to this guidance. 

The province will be urging those with respiratory virus symptoms or a positive test to "stay home as long as necessary to minimize transmission."

Jenne said the previous recommendation wasn't offering much protection, mainly because many Albertan weren't adhering to it. 

"I think that this is really a change in wording that is not really going to impact our daily lives in Alberta, because essentially people were not following the recommendation," he said.