A Calgary lab has partnered with a locally based pharmacy chain that has a strong presence in rural southern Alberta to offer fee-based asymptomatic COVID-19 tests.
The polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests will soon be available to people without COVID symptoms at Sandstone Pharmacies across the province.
The tests use saliva samples rather than nose or throat swabs, and results can be available within hours, but for a fee. It will be $149 plus GST for a standard, 24-hour wait, and up to $199 plus GST for a four-hour wait.
The developers hope that faster turnaround times will allow the province to stay on top of testing.
"The biggest problem the PCR testing has is that it takes a long time to process the results, and that delays notification to patients, to the health-care teams and contact tracing," said Dr. Anmol Kapoor, a Calgary cardiologist and the CEO of CardiAI labs, which will process the results.
"And then, COVID gets ahead of us."
Testing not as accessible for rural Albertans, doctor says
By testing saliva, Kapoor said people are spared the experience of the swab, which can be uncomfortable for some and painful for others.
He also said it will not compromise the accuracy of the results.
"There is a lot of data … showing saliva is equally good as [the] swab," Kapoor said. "It allows us to do more testing, ease of testing, it allows us to expand its reach."
That expansion includes more rural parts of the province — Sandstone locations in Alberta include Airdrie, Nanton, Blackfalds, Bragg Creek, Black Diamond, Hythe and Langdon.
There are also locations in Calgary and Medicine Hat.
"Rural Albertans were not getting the same access that Edmontonians or Calgarians could have available," Kapoor said.
"Through the Sandstone Pharmacy partnership, we've opened up about 20 collection sites."
'Large demand' remains for asymptomatic testing
According to Marco Casagrande, vice-president of Sandstone Pharmacies, demand for asymptomatic testing remained even after the provincial government officially ended it last September.
"We have 19 stores in our company, 11 of them in rural, and largely the rural market pharmacies were asked to step up and start asymptomatic testing [by Alberta Health] in summer of 2020 for people who wanted it," Casagrande said.
"And as the government shifted away from it in the fall, there was still a large demand for people who wanted asymptomatic testing, and now they needed it more so for reasons of work, travel, urgent travel."
Alberta's Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Deena Hinshaw announced on Thursday that the Calgary airport's COVID-19 testing pilot program will be suspended as stricter federal travel regulations come into effect.
However, Kapoor said the PCR tests provided by Sandstone Pharmacies meet the federal requirements for a COVID-19 test at Canadian land crossings and the Calgary International Airport.
Innisfail Mayor Jim Romane said that in situations where a COVID-19 test is needed urgently, and in areas where testing is more limited, the service will be helpful in making them more accessible.
But he also stressed the test is not a licence to travel but instead another tool in the fight to get life "back to normal."
"There are circumstances — family emergencies, et cetera — that require this test. So, I think it will be well-received," Romane said. "But how well it gets used, I'm not quite sure."
Casagrande said the testing kits should be available in Sandstone Pharmacies early next week.