Alberta scales back testing of COVID-19 variants of concern to specific groups

Effective Monday, Alberta will only test for COVID-19 variants in specific populations, citing a rapid increase in positivity rates and overall test volumes of COVID-19.

Province says move necessitated by a rapid increase in positivity rates and overall test volumes

Laboratory technologists work to sequence the genome of the SARS-CoV-2 virus at the BCCDC in Vancouver, British Columbia on Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2021. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Effective Monday, Alberta will only test for COVID-19 variant of concerns in specific populations, citing a rapid increase in positivity rates and overall test volumes of COVID-19.

The province says the move was made necessary in order to maintain turnaround times and capacity in laboratories.

According to a bulletin posted by Alberta Health Services on April 30, testing for variants will now be limited to:

  • Hospitalized and emergency room patients.
  • Patients involved in outbreaks.
  • Health-care workers.
  • Recent international travelers.

The bulletin goes on to state that testing for variants is a surveillance tool, not a diagnostic test. Results will continue to be reported to physicians and public health, and results will continue to be reported as per routine.

Alberta Health Services says the change is in order to have an average 24-hour turnaround for test results.

Craig Jenne, an associate professor of microbiology, immunology and infectious diseases at the University of Calgary, says with over 60 per cent of cases currently listed as variants, it's at the point where you have to assume every case is a variant case. 

"We no longer have the testing capacity to run every sample twice to determine if a person is infected, and then put it through a second analysis to see which variant they may have, we have to dedicate that space to just testing," Jenne said.

"We're hearing reports in the Calgary region of up to three to five days if you request to test before you actually go in for the swab, and then even a couple additional days to get your results."

Jenne said with testing positivity rates as high as 12 per cent, "we're missing far, far more cases in the community than even the ones we're detecting."

AHS says the current system is processing 17,000 tests per day, and that most patients are receiving their results within 24 to 48 hours. 

There were more than 989 new cases involving variants of concern reported Friday.

As of Friday, 13,440 active cases — around 61 per cent of the province's active cases — have been identified as variants.

With files from Joel Dryden


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