Asymptomatic testing could become norm until COVID-19 vaccine is ready: pharmacist

"Until there's a vaccine available, this is really going to be kind of a new norm for how we're going to control the virus, and the intent is really to improve the safety of the members of our community."

Alberta pharmacists testing program 'a really great option' to ensure virus isn't spread to loved ones

A health-care worker in Montreal prepares to swab a man at a walk-in COVID-19 test clinic. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

Asymptomatic COVID-19 tests being conducted in Alberta pharmacies could become a saving grace for people wanting extra assurance that they aren't endangering the health of their loved ones, says one of the pharmacists delivering the tests.

"Until there's a vaccine available, this is really going to be kind of a new norm for how we're going to control the virus, and the intent is really to improve the safety of the members of our community," Ashley Davidson, a pharmacist at a St. Albert Shoppers Drug Mart, told CBC Radio's Edmonton AM on Thursday.

"People are out shopping, going about their business like any of us, and they have no idea that they could be positive. So this is a really great option for, say, people caring for elderly parents, a contact of somebody who's going through chemotherapy or some other form of cancer treatment, or even for people with very young children at home or people with respiratory disease."

On July 30, the Alberta government announced the success of a pilot project under which a limited  number of pharmacies conducted swab tests for the novel coronavirus, and said the program would be opened up to all pharmacies in the province.

At that time, 94 pharmacies were enrolled in the program. Since then, the number of participating pharmacies has more than doubled to 220 in 51 communities, and by Sept. 1, all 234 Loblaw and Shoppers Drug Mart pharmacies in Alberta will have signed on.

There are about 1,400 pharmacies in Alberta, according to the Alberta Pharmacists' Association.

"Our understanding is that currently, pharmacies have performed approximately 10,000 tests in the last month, with the numbers increasing daily as pharmacies continue to join the program," the association said in a statement to CBC News. 

Alberta Health Services pays the pharmacists for every throat swab test they conduct. More than 912,000 tests have already been conducted in Alberta since the pandemic began.

Davidson's location, which only began doing throat swab tests one week ago after getting the protocols, test kits and protective supplies in place, put a priority on testing teachers and other school staff.

She estimated that individual pharmacies are doing between 20 and 90 swabs per day. 

"We need to staff people to be able to provide these tests. And that's not always easy to do," Davidson said, explaining why the capacity of some locations to conduct tests might be lower than others.

The timing for results is similar to that of tests done through Alberta Health Services, potentially upwards of four days. The province has said it is working to speed that timeline up.

Unlike filling a prescription, people are urged to pre-book a COVID-19 test. Davidson suggested calling the pharmacy first and they will either screen and schedule you over the phone or you may be directed to an online scheduling portal.

Call to book an appointment

Part of the screening will be to ensure that people coming in for tests are not experiencing any symptoms of COVID-19, Davidson said. 

"We certainly don't want to be introducing anyone symptomatic into community stores," she said. 

The pre-screening questions will cover symptoms and potential risk factors, such as travel outside of Canada, she said. 

"Then as kind of a final step, we'll take their temperature when they arrive at the pharmacy. So we're doing all these things to make sure that we can keep everybody involved safe and that it's safe for the person to be out in the community." 

Alberta's pharmacists were first in Canada to begin conducting COVID-19 tests. Similarly, in 2007 pharmacists in the province were first in the country to be approved to begin administering flu shots. Last year, more than 850,000 influenza vaccinations were delivered by pharmacists.

A complete list of Alberta pharmacies participating in the asymptomatic COVID-19 testing program can be found on the Alberta Blue Cross website.


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