Alberta makes testing changes as Omicron COVID-19 variant continues to soar

·3 min read

EDMONTON — Alberta is adjusting its COVID-19 testing rules to cope with the ongoing rise in cases driven by the highly transmissible Omicron variant.

Dr. Deena Hinshaw, the province's chief medical officer of health, is urging Albertans with COVID-19 symptoms to rely on rapid antigen tests rather than the more accurate PCR tests in order to free up PCR resources for those in higher-priority settings, such as continuing care.

“With cases growing exponentially we must begin to conserve testing capacity, reserving testing capacity for higher-risk groups,” Hinshaw said Thursday.

“This recommendation will help ease the burden on our lab and mirrors a similar approach seen in B.C., Ontario, Quebec and other Canadian jurisdictions.”

The province has distributed 250,000 rapid test kits — each with five tests — over the last week through health sites and pharmacies, and is ordering up to 10 million more tests privately that are expected to be available in the new year.

Hinshaw said people who have rapid test kits and COVID-19 symptoms should use those kits rather than go for a PCR test.

“If you test positive and have symptoms, consider that as confirmation that you have COVID-19,” said Hinshaw. “Please isolate and notify your close contacts.”

She said if someone has COVID-19 symptoms but is negative on the rapid test, that person should isolate for 24 to 48 hours then test again. If it is negative a second time, they should stay in isolation until the symptoms disappear.

Because of rising COVID-19 caseloads, the province also announced it's providing all unimmunized physicians and health staff the option of frequent COVID-19 testing if they wish to return to work.

The testing was previously available to a small number of unvaccinated workers at some locations. About 1,400 full-and part-time staff are on unpaid leave because they are not fully vaccinated.

They will have to pay for the testing and the policy will be reviewed at the end of March.

"In light of the risk posed by the Omicron variant, we need to adjust the policy to maximize capacity and avoid losing any staff if we can while still keeping patients safe," Health Minister Jason Copping said in a release.

Hinshaw said Omicron is now the dominant strain in the province and cases are doubling every two to three days.

There were 1,625 new COVID-19 cases reported Thursday, for a total active case count of 8,359. There were 318 people in hospital with the illness, including 64 in intensive care.

Those numbers are down slightly from a day earlier and represent a fraction of the cases in hospital in September, which threatened to buckle the health system.

But Hinshaw said even the current hospitalnumbers represent a sobering strain on health capacity.

Opposition NDP health critic David Shepherd said the testing decision is a backward step as Omicron grows. He also criticized the United Conservative government for not promising daily updates over the holidays.

Hinshaw said she will be available twice a week over the holidays to deliver information and take questions.

“Alberta is choosing to cut back on testing and compromising their own data when we should be enhancing these measures,” said Shepherd.

“Why is the government going dark in the middle of a crisis? Where is the premier? Why did they not plan for a crisis they had to have seen coming?”

Earlier this week, Premier Jason Kenney announced new rules to reduce the potential of super-spreader events.

Those new restrictions take effect Friday.

Venues that seat over 1,000 people will be limited to half capacity, a restriction that includes Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames hockey games and the upcoming World Junior Hockey championships in Edmonton and Red Deer.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 23, 2021.

Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press

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