Why Alberta's COVID-19 testing numbers have been down lately — and are set to pick back up

After peaking above 4,000 tests per day at one point, we've been completing only about 900 per day, on average, for the past three days.

After tightening testing criteria on March 23, province is now expanding eligibility to more people

A health-care worker collects a sample at a drive-thru COVID-19 testing facility in Alberta. (Alberta Health Services)

If you're among the many Albertans who have been following the daily COVID-19 data obsessively, you'll likely have noticed that the province has been testing fewer people for the disease in the past few days.

A lot fewer.

After peaking above 4,000 tests per day at one point, we've been completing only about 900 per day, on average, for the past three days.

And this isn't the first time testing has noticeably ebbed; there have been several two or three-day periods in the past few weeks where the numbers have dropped off sharply. 

One of these periods was due to a temporary shortage in reagent — a chemical required to do genetic analysis and detect the virus — but the other two were not due to shortages of testing materials, according to Alberta Health.

Rather, these ebbs are the result of the change in testing criteria that the province adopted just over two weeks ago.

The province announced on March 23 it would stop testing returning travellers with mild symptoms and would limit tests to people at high risk from the coronavirus (including people hospitalized with respiratory illness and residents of long-term care homes). Health-care workers with respiratory symptoms would also be tested.

It took some time to fully implement these measures, as the province continued to test anyone who had already been promised a test.

But over time, the change in eligibility led to some ebbs in the daily test volumes.

"There will always be variation between any given day," Alberta Health spokesperson Tom McMillan said in an email.

"The decline seen in recent days is the result of the changes implemented on March 23."

But those eligibility criteria have now changed again.

New, expanded eligibility

As of Tuesday, the province has opened opening tests up to a broader range of Albertans, based on their profession or their age.

Alberta's chief medical officer of health, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, said people with symptoms such as shortness of breath, runny nose, cough, fever or sore throat will be considered "testing priorities" if they work in certain roles, including: 

  • Group home and shelter workers.
  • Firefighters.
  • Staff at jails and prisons.
  • Police, peace and bylaw officers.
  • Public health inspectors.

In addition, anyone who's at least 65 years old and has any of those symptoms will also be considered a priority for testing.

"Knowing that older Albertans are at increased risk of complications if they are infected with COVID-19, we are expanding testing access to enable early detection of infection in this group of people," Hinshaw said.

"Identifying infections in all of these groups will help us to prevent the spread to high-risk populations living in close quarters, more closely trace any community transmission among the testing groups and provide more valuable information on the effects of our public health measures."

Testing set to return to 'maximum capacity'

As a result, the number of people tested daily is now set to ramp back up. 

"We expect that testing will soon be back at maximum capacity as a result of this new, expanded testing criteria," McMillan said.

In a televised address Tuesday evening, Premier Jason Kenney also said there are plans for Alberta to conduct as many as 20,000 tests per day in the future, using "new tests that are being developed and approved to identify positive cases and those with immunity more quickly, so we can get people back to work."

As of Tuesday, 65,265 people had been tested for COVID-19 in Alberta.

That's roughly 1.5 per cent of the population.

You can find all the latest statistics and more context surrounding the data in this story, which is updated daily.


Robson Fletcher

Data Journalist

Robson Fletcher's work for CBC Calgary focuses on data, analysis and investigative journalism. He joined CBC in 2015 after spending the previous decade working as a reporter and editor at newspapers in Alberta, British Columbia and Manitoba.


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