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Expanded COVID-19 testing welcomed at Alberta care homes despite staffing concerns

Expanded COVID-19 testing welcomed at Alberta care homes despite staffing concerns
Staff and residents at continuing care centres across Alberta dealing with outbreaks will be tested for COVID-19.

As Alberta continues to grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic, and its impact on long-term care facilities, provincial health officials have expanded testing protocols.

According to the province, all staff and residents at long-term care facilities dealing with a COVID-19 outbreak in Alberta will be tested for the virus whether or not they’re showing symptoms.

The tests are expected in the coming days, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney said on Friday.

To date, 51 people in Alberta have died due to COVID-19; of those, 32 were residents in long-term care facilities.

The McKenzie Towne Continuing Care Centre in Calgary, operated by Revera, has been the hardest hit care facility in the province with 50 residents and 41 staff testing positive for COVID-19. To date, there have been 21 deaths related to the virus.

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“Revera supports the new provincial guidelines for testing employees who work at care homes and thanks to the Government of Alberta for taking this important step toward ensuring the safety of all residents and staff at long term care homes,” Revera spokesperson Susan Schutta said in a statement to Global News.

READ MORE: Coronavirus: 71% of Alberta’s total cases are in Calgary zone; another death brings fatalities to 51

The expanded testing is welcomed by David Cowling, whose brother lives at Clifton Manor.

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There have been 30 cases at the facility, including 19 residents and 11 staff.

Although the expanded testing brings some level of comfort to Cowling, he said he questions the timing for the testing to be implemented.

“I think stubbornness is not an attribute during a pandemic, so I am thankful that Alberta has chosen to change its misguided policies,” Cowling said. “We’re in the middle of April, we’ve known for months now that this transmitted asymptomatically and I think we need to hold our health officials and our politicians to account about why it took so long.”

The Brenda Strafford Foundation, which operates Clifton Manor, said that three of its facilities in Calgary are experiencing outbreaks of the virus.

According to the foundation’s president and CEO Mike Conroy, expanded testing is a step in the right direction and a measure that the organization had advocated for since it experienced its first outbreak at Clifton Manor.

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“We think it’s a very positive development,” Conroy said. “We think it’s overdue, quite frankly.”

However, Conroy said expanded testing does come with risks to staffing levels at the continuing care facilities.

READ MORE: Coronavirus: Management says Manoir du Lac AHS takeover was a surprise, acknowledges staffing issues

When Clifton Manor experienced its first case of COVID-19, 23 staff members had to self-isolate for 14 days, which put a strain on day-to-day operations.

“When asymptomatic staff are tested and they test positive, they have to go home,” Conroy said. “That’s going to have a significant impact on staffing levels in facilities that are already struggling to meet baseline staffing because of folks that have gone off on self-isolation.”

Conroy is calling on Alberta health officials to help ensure staffing levels at care facilities will remain intact throughout the testing process.

“There has to be a re-allocation of health resources from the hospital sector to continuing care, continuing care has been the epicentre of this pandemic across Canada,” Conroy said. “Clearly, the acute care sector has the capacity currently to treat those requiring hospitalization with COVID.”

According to the latest COVID-19 update from the provincial government, there are 57 people receiving treatment for the virus in hospital, including 14 who have been admitted to intensive care units.

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In response to staffing level concerns, Alberta Health is working with Alberta Health Services and other stakeholders to implement policy, an Alberta government spokesperson said.

“As per CMOH Order 10-2020, we will be requesting that employers submit information about their clinical and non-clinical staff to assist us in understanding provincial staffing levels and determine an approach that prioritizes resident safety. This work is already underway,” government spokesperson Zoe Cooper said in a statement to Global News. “Additional details will be communicated to providers and employees in the coming days.”

Expanded testing protocols are the latest health measure to be implemented at long-term care facilities in Alberta.

Earlier this month, newly implemented measures state that all workers at sites must wear masks at all times when near patients or near others and continuing care staff must only work at one site.