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Alberta coronavirus screening: What’s the criteria and who gets tested?

Click to play video: 'Dr. Mark Joffe on COVID-19 spread in Alberta'
Dr. Mark Joffe on COVID-19 spread in Alberta
Dr. Mark Joffe is an infection prevention and control physician and the Alberta Health Services medical director for northern Alberta. He joined Gord Steinke to talk about the coronavirus testing process, wait times for results, whether testing needs to be expanded now that there is community transition, and touches on what life could be like in Alberta in a month. – Mar 20, 2020

As Alberta health officials have been performing more COVID-19 tests than anywhere else in North America, experts are in conversation about whether the testing criteria needs to be modified.

“It likely will change,” said Dr. Mark Joffe, Alberta Health Services medical director for northern Alberta and infection prevention physician. Joffe spoke with Global News on Friday.

That same day, the premier said Alberta had tested more than 17,000 individuals for COVID-19 so far – at a rate of about 2,000 per day.

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“Those are decisions that actually come from the federal government, together with the provinces and the territories, so we are awaiting decisions on whether out screening strategies will be changing,” Joffe said.

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Joffe said Alberta’s integrated healthcare system has allowed officials to significantly ramp up screening in the province in the past couple of weeks.

What’s the criteria?

So who actually needs to be tested?

Well, according to Joffe, right now it’s anyone who believes they’ve been exposed and particularly those who have travelled.

“If they’re self-isolating over the first couple of weeks after returning from travels and then develop fever and a cough, if that’s the case, they should call 811,” he said.

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Joffe stressed the importance of Albertans calling Health Link 811 if they believe they have symptoms of the novel coronavirus.

“Access to our assessment centres is all through 811,” he said. “They are not walk-in, they are not drive-in. They’re only by appointment by 811.”

Getting results

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Joffe reiterated the point that if someone is tested, it could take up to four days for those results to come back.

When they do come back, patients who test positive are the top priority.

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“We are getting the positive results out faster because, of course, those are the ones that we need to prioritize,” Joffe said. “We need to identify their contacts as well.

“The negative ones will definitely take longer to report.”

 Should criteria be changed?

Alberta’s first cases were travel-related, but in recent days, more cases of community-transmission have been confirmed, leading to questions about whether the criteria around who should be tested needs to be updated.

Alberta’s chief medical officer of health said Friday that 11 of the confirmed cases are suspected to be a result of community transmission.

Joffe said identifying who needs to be screened is a “moving target.”

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“And then of course setting up the assessment centres so that we can facilitate screening of those individuals,” he said.

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“It’s a fine balance between just how much testing can we do, what is the capacity of the system?

“And how do we ensure that we’re testing the right people at the right time so we can act on those results and offer the public the protection that they need.”

More cases to come

Joffe said health officials are working hard behind the scenes to prepare for a spike in cases expected over the next month.

“We are anticipating this, we are planning for it and we will be ready to deal with the increasing number of cases,” he said.

“There will [also] be an increasing number of individuals staying home with mild symptoms, who we will be providing care for in different ways.”

Joffe said healthcare workers are also “going through intense preparation” for an increase in the number of Albertans who need hospitalization and who will be admitted to the ICU for treatment of COVID-19.

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As of Friday, Alberta had 195 cases of the coronavirus in the province, 49 of those having been confirmed in the last 24 hours.

Ten of those patients were in hospital and five in intensive care.

“This is a virus to be taken very seriously,” chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw said.

“Every single case is one that could potentially end up in a very serious situation.”

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