In a big change to how Alberta has handled testing for COVID-19, the province’s chief medical officer of health announced Thursday that asymptomatic testing is no longer being made available to everyone in the province.
Asymptomatic testing will now be reserved for people who are close contacts of confirmed cases, anyone linked to an outbreak and priority groups such as residents and staff in congregate settings, health-care workers and school staff and those living with homelessness.
The change comes after Dr. Deena Hinshaw revealed that, since asymptomatic testing began in May, Alberta has found only seven positive COVID-19 cases per 10,000 tests.
“This means that it is very rare to find cases in those without symptoms and without known exposure and this testing is not driving the new cases that we are seeing,” she said.
The change comes as Hinshaw warned that fall and winter will be a “significant challenge” from a public health perspective in Alberta.
“COVID-19 is still here and is not going anywhere,” she said. “At the same time, influenza season will soon begin.
“This means that in addition to potentially contracting COVID-19, Albertans will have a greater chance of catching a cold or flu which have very similar symptoms to COVID-19.”
That means more people will have symptoms that will lead to them needing to be tested. Since May, the province has conducted more than 233,000 voluntary asymptomatic tests.
“This is a tremendous number,” Hinshaw said.
What that feat achieved, she added, is to allow for labs to prepare for the high number of tests that will come through the fall and the winter.
“Now we are acting on these lessons learned.”
Hinshaw said the extensive testing conducted since May has determined there is an “extremely low yield” of positive results for that kind of testing.
“We need to shift back toward that high clinical value with those priority groups still being able to access testing to make sure we’re preserving that particular piece of the system.”
Those with tests already booked will still be able to get tested, and anyone travelling internationally who needs proof of a negative test will still be able to be tested.
“This change to focus on priority groups will help ensure testing is scheduled as quickly as possible and will shorten the length of time that Albertans are waiting to get results.”
Testing for those Albertans with COVID-19 symptoms will continue as normal, Hinshaw said.
“We have clear evidence that shows where testing is most effective and a lab system with significant capacity to identify cases and protect Albertans,” she said.
“We will continue to monitor the testing approach and make any additional changes that might be needed in the future.”
The change in testing policy also means Albertans will need to continue focusing on the other aspects of COVID-19 prevention, Hinshaw said. Practices like physical distancing, wearing a mask when that’s not possible and personal hygiene are going to make a bigger difference in keeping people safe than getting an asymptomatic test would.
“What we’re seeing is that that test really, perhaps, was an added layer of people feeling safe, but it’s not an accurate predictor, it’s simply was a way of helping us understand at that population level what was going on.”
Thursday’s COVID-19 numbers in Alberta
On Thursday, Hinshaw announced an additional 146 new cases of COVID-19 from more than 13,000 tests. There are now 1,403 active cases, with more than 50 per cent of those cases in the Edmonton zone. That zone currently has 751 active cases.
There are currently 470 active cases reported in the Calgary zone, 29 in the Central zone, 38 in the South zone and 193 in the North zone.
Alberta Health reported two new cases that have not yet been attributed to a specific zone.
There were no new deaths reported on Thursday, so Alberta’s COVID-19 death toll remains at 254. There were 41 people in hospital as of Thursday afternoon, with eight of those people in the ICU.
To date, Alberta has performed 1,169,378 coronavirus tests.
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