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With Omicron surging, Alberta Health Services offers COVID testing option to unvaccinated staff

As Alberta braces for the impact of an Omicron-driven wave of infections, the province is offering unvaccinated physicians and health staff frequent COVID-19 testing in a bid to get employees back to work. 

Health Minister says policy change is needed to prepare for impact of variant

Healthcare workers provide care for a COVID-19 patient in an Alberta ICU. (AHS)

As Alberta braces for the impact of an Omicron-driven wave of infections, the province is offering unvaccinated physicians and health staff frequent COVID-19 testing in a bid to get employees back to work. 

The testing option, which was previously available to a small number of unimmunized Alberta Health Services workers at select locations, will now be available to any unvaccinated staff member who wants back on the job.

About 1,400 full and part-time staff are on unpaid leave because they are not fully vaccinated against COVID-19, breaching an AHS mandate.

"In light of the risk posed by the Omicron variant, we need to adjust the policy to maximize capacity and avoid losing any staff if we can while still keeping patients safe," Health Minister Jason Copping said in a news release Thursday. 

The unvaccinated workers will have to pay for testing. 

The policy will be reviewed at the end of March 2022, the province said.

Health Minister Jason Copping says, because of rising COVID-19 caseloads, the province is providing all unimmunized physicians and health staff the option of frequent COVID-19 testing if they wish to return to work. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

In late-November, the provincial government directed AHS to allow the temporary rapid testing option due to concerns care could be impacted at sites where compliance is low. A total of 175 staff at health-care facilities were initially offered the rapid test option.

The mandatory vaccination policy went into effect on Dec 13 and applies to all AHS and Covenant Health staff as well as workers at AHS subsidiaries, including Carewest, Capital Care and Alberta Precision Laboratories. 

According to the health authority's website, AHS and its subsidiaries have a combined workforce of 121,000 people.

More than 97 per cent of full-time and part-time staff have had at least two doses of COVID-19 vaccine, AHS said in the news release Thursday. 

More than 99.8 per cent of physicians have had at least two doses while 99 per cent of ICU staff have submitted proof of being fully immunized.

According to AHS, more than 11,000 employees have requested exemptions to the mandatory immunization policy — with 251 of those being medical accommodations. However only 40 per cent of those have been granted.

Cases of Omicron have soared and Alberta is preparing hospitals for the pending impact.

As of Thursday, there were 318 people in hospital with COVID-19, including 64 in intensive care.

Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Albera's chief medical officer of health, said even the current hospital numbers represent a sobering strain on health capacity. 

Even if cases of the highly transmissible variant prove less severe, the new strain threatens to once again overwhelm Alberta hospitals.

"Omicron is spreading farther and faster than anything we've ever seen before," Hinshaw warned Thursday as she announced a suite of new changes to COVID-19 testing and screening procedures intended to ease the burden of the rising caseload. 

Hinshaw is urging Albertans with symptoms to use rapid antigen tests over the more accurate PCR tests to free up PCR resources for those in higher-priority settings like continuing care.

Under the strain of Omicron, Alberta labs will no longer have the capacity to accurately track each case of COVID-19, Hinshaw said.

"One of the goals of our testing program has been to identify all cases and to minimize onward spread from those cases. Unfortunately, with Omicron, that is not possible." 

'Going dark'

NDP health critic David Shepherd said the testing decision is a backward step. He also criticized the United Conservative government for not promising daily updates over the holidays.

Hinshaw will provide live updates on Tuesday and Thursday of next week. New data including daily numbers will be provided on Dec. 29 and Jan. 4.

"Alberta is choosing to cut back on testing and compromising their own data when we should be enhancing these measures," Shepherd said. "Why is the government going dark in the middle of a crisis?"

There are now 8,359 active COVID-19 cases across the province with 1,625 new cases reported Thursday.

With files from The Canadian Press

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