Alberta to shift COVID-19 testing strategy as Omicron variant spread accelerates

Alberta to shift COVID-19 testing strategy as Omicron variant spread accelerates

by Sue Jones
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No one in Canada will be able to maintain PCR testing for every community case with mild symptoms, Alberta’s chief medical officer of health said Thursday.

Covid Alta 20210813

No one in Canada will be able to maintain PCR testing for every community case with mild symptoms, according to Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s chief medical officer of health. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

Alberta’s recommendations for COVID-19 testing have changed as the province braces for an influx of cases spurred by the Omicron variant.

Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s chief medical officer of health, reiterated the speed of the variant’s transmission during her COVID-19 update on Thursday. Alberta is showing spread on par with other jurisdictions — doubling times of just two or three days, Hinshaw said.

“This is much faster than we experienced with the Delta variant over the last six months,” she said Thursday.

To ease the burden on provincial lab testing, Hinshaw said rapid tests should be used for most people with symptoms and encouraged Albertans to use rapid tests over a PCR test. Those in high priority settings such as health care should still get a PCR test. 

WATCH | Alberta’s top doctor says provincial labs could be overwhelmed: 

Edm Hinshaw Tests Web

Dr. Hinshaw recommends most people use rapid tests instead of PCR tests

Due to the growth of Omicron COVID-19 cases, Dr. Deena Hinshaw now recommends the use of rapid antigen testing for most people to lessen the burden on the provincial lab. 1:40

Those who test positive on a rapid test should take it as confirmation and isolate, she said. A negative test should be followed by another rapid test 24 to 48 hours but should be coupled with isolation. 

Following a second negative test, Albertans are to isolate until they no longer have symptoms.

Hinshaw said the changes will affect surveillance of COVID-19 spread and the province will rely more on wastewater surveillance and other monitoring systems. She said it’s not a situation unique to Alberta.

“No one in Canada will be able to maintain PCR testing for every community case with mild symptoms.”

Laboratory capacity

Hinshaw said PCR testing is not being blocked but recommendations are changing as a proactive step to ensure lab capacity.

“As we’ve seen in many other provinces, all those that are experiencing significant Omicron surges, we’re seeing that lab-testing capacity is exceeded very quickly.”

Contact tracing will be shifted to focus on high-priority settings such as congregate care and health-care facilities.

Screening procedures for staff in congregate care settings were also being updated, including requiring staff who are known close contacts to take a daily rapid tests for 10 days following exposure.

Residents of supportive living facilities identified as close contacts or return to their facility after an absence of 24 hours or greater must actively screen for symptoms every day and wear a medical mask for two weeks.

COVID-19 in Alberta

Alberta reported 1,625 new cases of COVID-19 on Thursday, detected through around 11,800 tests. The positivity rate sits at 13.6 per cent.

No new deaths were reported to Alberta Health in the previous 24 hours.

As of Thursday, 318 people were in hospital, including 64 in intensive care. 

“While these numbers have dropped in the recent week, it’s important to know that there are very high baselines and it’s too soon to know what the severity impact from our Omicron cases will be,” Hinshaw said Thursday.

There are now 8,359 active cases of COVID-19 in Alberta —  an increase of more than 1,000 since the previous update.

Hinshaw said there had been a significant uptake of third doses since eligibility was expanded — 196,391 boosters had been booked since the announcement on Tuesday.

She once again repeated her call from earlier this week for Albertans to cut their in-person social contacts by at least half over the holidays.

The total number of Omicron cases in Alberta has soared and it is now considered to be the dominant strain in the province.

Transmission of the new strain has escalated daily case counts in the province to levels not seen for months.

On Tuesday, in a bid to clamp down on the spread of Omicron, Alberta introduced new public health restrictions while expanding rapid testing and third dose vaccinations.

Hinshaw will provide live updates on Tuesday and Thursday of next week but daily updates to the government’s COVID-19 dashboard will be slowed over the holidays. New data including daily numbers will be provided on Dec. 29 and Jan. 4.

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