Effective immediately, Alberta is once again changing who is eligible for a COVID-19 PCR test as the Omicron variant continues to push the province’s testing abilities past its limits.
“While we have used widespread PCR testing to manage COVID-19 in previous waves, this approach is just not possible with the Omicron variant,” Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s chief medical officer of health, said on Monday.
“In order to ensure that patient care decisions are supported by timely diagnostic information, PCR testing eligibility will now be focused on those with clinical risk factors for severe outcomes and those who live or work in high-risk settings.”
(Click here for Monday’s COVID-19 numbers)
The full list of who is now eligible for a PCR test is available online, but a some of the examples Hinshaw outlined include:
- Continuing care residents
- Health-care workers and staff in acute and continuing care settings
- Shelters and correctional facilities
- Household members of a person who works in continuing or acute care
- People with symptoms who have certain risk factors
- All residents and workers from isolated and remote First Nations, Inuit and Metis communities
- Returning international travellers who become symptomatic within 14 days
- Hospital and emergency room department patients of any age who are ill enough that COVID testing would change treatment plans
Hinshaw stressed the change doesn’t mean anyone who attends an emergency room will be given a PCR test.
“Please do not go to emergency unless you are sick enough to really need urgent treatment. Going for mild symptoms will not make you eligible for a PCR test.”
As Omicron has surged across Alberta, wait times for PCR tests have increased to several days and test results are now taking almost 48 hours.
Anyone who has an appointment currently booked but does not fall under the new guidelines is asked to cancel their appointment online or by calling 811.
“The Omicron variant is so prevalent in our communities right now that if you have COVID-19 symptoms such as a stuffy or runny nose, cough, fever, sore throat or loss of sense of smell or taste, you should assume you have COVID-19 and are legally required to isolate,” Hinshaw added.
The opposition NDP was not pleased with Monday’s announcement.
“With rapid tests still difficult to obtain in many places, I know many Albertans will feel abandoned by their government as the Omicron variant spreads out of control in their community,” health critic David Shepherd said in a statement.
“I’m extremely concerned that we did not see the health minister join today’s update to provide the essential information Albertans need to make informed decisions around COVID-19, nor did we see the education minister provide an update on the first day back to school across the province.”
The Alberta Health Services COVID-19 assessment tool has been updated to help determine who is eligible for a test, but also with new information about what type of care to seek and how to care for symptoms at home.
The new assessment tool should be used before calling 811 for assistance, Hinshaw said.
“If you are otherwise healthy and without risk factors, please use this screening tool and rapid tests, if available, to confirm your symptoms and self-isolate and manage your illness at home.”
The current tool is only for adults. A child version will be available later in the week, Hinshaw said.
Monday’s COVID-19 numbers
Alberta announced an additional 5,384 lab-confirmed cases of COVID-19 on Monday. The province performed about 13,879 tests over the past 24 hours and the province’s positivity rate was 38 per cent.
The province also confirmed 6,135 cases on Sunday and 6,161 cases on Saturday.
There were 57,332 active lab-confirmed COVID-19 cases across the province.
Alberta has now confirmed 14,078 cases of Omicron, up 1,428 cases since Friday’s update.
As the province had already restricted PCR testing criteria once before during this wave, the number of cases is likely much higher than reported.
“I think it’s clear there are many more people with COVID than are being diagnosed, partly because of the changes to the eligibility that were necessary so we can focus PCR testing on those at highest risk, but partly because many people have very mild symptoms,” Hinshaw said.
“I think it would be a conservative estimate to say we’re (at) one in 10 or greater at this point in time in terms of the number of cases that we’re catching.”
According to Monday’s data, 10 times the reported active case count would mean there are likely more than 573,000 active cases of COVID-19 in the province.
There were 635 people in hospital with COVID-19, with 72 of those people receiving care in the ICU.
Six additional deaths were reported, bringing Alberta’s COVID-19 death toll to 3,344. One of the deaths, which occurred last week, was a person under the age of 18 who Alberta Health said had pre-existing conditions.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, 412,829 Albertans have been confirmed to have COVID-19. Of those, 352,153 have recovered.