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Alberta expands COVID-19 rapid testing program to asymptomatic continuing care staff

Click to play video: 'When and where are rapid COVID-19 tests being used in Alberta?' When and where are rapid COVID-19 tests being used in Alberta?
Chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw explains where and when rapid testing is being used — including in rural Alberta, at shelters and long-term care settings — adding Alberta is exploring options for off-label asymptomatic testing, but cautions they are not as effective as PCR tests and only offer a snapshot in time. – Feb 2, 2021

Starting next week, Alberta will expand its COVID-19 rapid testing program to include asymptomatic staff at certain long-term care facilities, the next step in its goal to offer rapid testing for all continuing care staff.

“This expansion will eventually cover all 36,000 staff in continuing care facilities across the province,” Health Minister Tyler Shandro said Tuesday morning.

Read more: Private, rapid COVID-19 testing available in Edmonton

Three long-term care facilities have been identified by Alberta Health Services and will begin testing as early as next week.

The Government of Alberta will be supplying these tests free of charge and the tests will be done weekly to start.

If the COVID-19 positivity rate is more than five per cent in the surrounding community, facilities will be asked to increase the testing to twice a week.

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Click to play video: 'Coronavirus: How are provinces using rapid tests?' Coronavirus: How are provinces using rapid tests?
Coronavirus: How are provinces using rapid tests? – Jan 26, 2021

Anyone who tests positive from a rapid test will be required to self-isolate and will be sent for a standard test to confirm.

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Revera — who employs 3,000 continuing care staff in Alberta — has already started rolling out rapid testing at its facilities in Ontario and Shandro said the company is confident it will be able to start offering the tests to its Alberta staff.

“We hope and expect it will make a large difference in Alberta as well,” Shandro said.

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

Dr. Lynora Saxinger, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Alberta, said she is happy to hear Alberta is rolling out more rapid testing. However, she also cautioned the government that “just randomly sprinkling” tests throughout the province is not the way to go.

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“The issue with the rapid test is, if they’re positive, they’re quite reliable,” she said. “If they’re negative, you should pretend you never had it done.”

Saxinger said the concern is always if someone receives a negative test result, they will change their risk behaviour and will go visit elderly family or do something similar.

“That is not how these tests should be used because they can miss real infection,” she said.

Since the tests will be rolled out at facilities that are already following extreme health protocols, Saxinger feels testing in continuing care facilities will add another layer of safety.

Workplace pilot project

On Tuesday, the government also announced a pilot project is already underway in northern Alberta that is part of a larger consortium aiming to develop a cost-effective system for reopening the economy during the pandemic.

About 200 workers at Suncor Energy’s base plant in Fort McMurray and 125 staff in Fort McKay are taking part in the rapid-test project.

Click to play video: 'Why isn’t Canada using more rapid COVID-19 tests?' Why isn’t Canada using more rapid COVID-19 tests?
Why isn’t Canada using more rapid COVID-19 tests? – Jan 26, 2021

Participants without symptoms are being screened for COVID-19 at these facilities twice a week for 10 weeks.

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“In this way, workers who have COVID but don’t know it can be identified before they infect coworkers or others which will prevent or reduce outbreaks,” Shandro said.

The government has supplied 7,000 tests for the project. It hasn’t identified any positive cases yet, but anyone who tests positive will self-isolate and be set for secondary testing to confirm.

Read more: Air Canada, Rogers and Suncor part of group piloting rapid COVID-19 testing

The project is led by Creative Destruction Labs’ Rapid Screening Consortium and includes 12 companies including Loblaws, Air Canada and Scotiabank as well as Suncor.

At the end of the 10 weeks, the consortium will share the results with Alberta Health and Health Canada.

“I really think we have not embraced rapid testing because of these uncertainties, so if we can try and address some of these uncertainties, that’s great,” Saxinger said.

Rapid testing has already been deployed at 33 COVID-19 assessment centres, 29 hospitals and seven homeless shelters in Edmonton, Calgary and Red Deer. It has also been deployed at mobile testing facilities that test residents and staff of long-term care and designated supportive living facilities.

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