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Alberta expanding COVID-19 rapid testing to long-term care, remote rural communities

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WATCH ABOVE: Alberta’s health minister says the province’s COVID-19 rapid testing program will be expanded to include designated supportive living facilities, long-term care centres and remote rural communities. The initial rollout will start in the Edmonton zone on Friday, according to Tyler Shandro. Mobile testing centres are expected to be ready to deploy in the Calgary zone starting next week – Dec 17, 2020

Editor’s note: This story originally stated the rapid testing would be expanded and implemented at the Edmonton Convention Centre. However, the Mustard Seed has since clarified it has not yet confirmed that will happen. This story has been updated. 

Alberta’s health minister says the province’s COVID-19 rapid testing program will be expanded to include designated supportive living facilities, long-term care centres and remote rural communities.

The initial rollout will start in the Edmonton zone on Friday, according to Tyler Shandro. Mobile testing centres are expected to be ready to deploy in the Calgary zone starting next week.

Mobile units will first be used to bring the rapid point-of-care testing to facilities with outbreaks or at risk of an outbreak, the health minister explained.

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The province said rapid testing will provide faster, more convenient testing to identify cases of COVID-19 within hours. It will also help reduce the turnaround time for PCR tests in labs across the province, Shandro said.

“Alberta’s COVID-19 testing program is critical to managing and preventing the spread of the virus in our communities,” Shandro said.

“Bringing rapid point-of-care testing directly to the locations where it can help protect the health of the most vulnerable Albertans is an important addition to our provincial testing system.”

Read more: Health Canada approves first Canadian-made rapid COVID-19 test

Alberta Health Services has received more than 800,000 rapid tests from the Public Health Agency of Canada.

Click to play video: 'Alberta expanding COVID-19 rapid testing to long-term care, remote rural communities' Alberta expanding COVID-19 rapid testing to long-term care, remote rural communities
Alberta expanding COVID-19 rapid testing to long-term care, remote rural communities – Dec 17, 2020

Both the Abbott ID NOW and Abbott Panbio COVID-19 testing systems are being used on patients who are within the first seven days of expressing symptoms of COVID-19, according to the province.

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“It’s difficult to get a lot of data out of the asymptomatic people because we know there’s a lower prevalence of COVID-19 when you start testing those people, so you need to test 1,000 people to get enough data to confirm how well the test works in that population,” explained Dr. William Stokes, with Alberta Health Services.

“If we target a population that has signs and symptoms, we’re able to capture a lot more data.”

Stokes said the goal is to get the rapid tests out as quickly as possible.

“We are exploring the possibilities of asymptomatic testing but we started first with people at highest risk of COVID-19.”

Stokes said medical teams at Alberta Precision Laboratories have been working for months to determine the effectiveness of the Abbott ID NOW and Abbott Panbio COVID-19 testing kits.

“These rapid tests are effective in identifying positive COVID-19 cases, especially in people with symptoms and signs of COVID-19 infection,” Stokes said.

Dr. Daisy Fung, a family physician in Edmonton and an assistant clinical professor at University of Alberta, said the development is great news. She said she has worked with care homes and knows some residents have had to wait three or four days for PCR test results in the middle of an outbreak, which she said was “much too long.”

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“(But) I still really want rapid testing available for asymptomatic people, specifically staff and visitors who come on site (to care homes),” Fung said. “If possible daily because that makes up for some of the weaknesses of the tests.

“With all of the outbreaks that I’ve worked on… (to my knowledge) it was started because an asymptomatic individual came on to the site, whether it was a family member or staff person, and only developed symptoms later on, got the PCR test as usual and then waited however long it took to get the result back… before finding out they’re positive.

“I really think that we can prevent outbreaks and save lives by picking up even a few of those positives early on when they are asymptomatic by doing frequent daily testing.”

Fung said one of her greatest fears is to be an “asymptomatic spreader” and causing an outbreak.

“I think I share that fear with many of my colleagues,” she said. “We never want to cause harm even if it’s inadvertent and unintentional.”

Read more: ‘We need it now’: Experts say at-home coronavirus tests critical to fight 2nd wave

The Alberta NDP’s critic for seniors and housing said the move to use rapid testing in long-term care is “very good news” and something that, for more than a week, her party has been calling for.

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“This will help ease the minds of many Albertans who have loved ones in care and I count myself among them as both my parents are in continuing care,” Lori Sigurdson said Thursday afternoon.

“That being said, we know there is still so much more the government needs to do. I am hearing from so many families that are worried about their loved ones. We know staff are doing their best but they are overwhelmed right now. That means care is compromised.”

Shandro said rapid point-of-care testing will also be further expanded to 25 rural hospitals in the North, Central and South zones later this month and into January.

“These new sites were chosen based on their locations in rural and remote communities,” Shandro said.

Thursday’s announcement was made at the Calgary Drop-In Centre, where the rapid testing has been used since early last week. The province said its rapid-testing clinical pilot expanded on the week of Dec. 7 to include the Calgary Drop-in Centre as well as Edmonton’s isolation facility.

The province said work is underway to bring the systems to more homeless shelters in urban and rural locations in the coming weeks.

“Keeping our vulnerable community members and agency staff safe is always our top priority. We believe that rapid testing will allow us to better support members of our community who are experiencing symptoms or have been close contacts by getting them into isolation quicker and in turn reducing the spread,” said Dean Kurpjuweit, executive director of the Mustard Seed.

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–With files from Global News’ Phil Heidenreich

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