The Current

Alberta's move to stop COVID-19 testing leaves parents worried as new school year looms

Alberta will soon limit who can access COVID-19 testing, prompting concerns about how to mitigate spread of the virus as a new school year looms.

Shift in testing strategy is 'very bold experiment,' says epidemiologist

Krista Li and her family live in Calgary. She's concerned that reduced availability of COVID-19 testing in the province will lead to more cases, and greater inequity. (Submitted by Krista Li)

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As Alberta prepares to stop wider testing for COVID-19, a Calgary mother says it's "egregious" that she may have to pay for private testing, if the need arises once her kids return to school.

"If I felt the need, that we were sick and we could not obtain testing elsewhere, I guess we would have no choice but to pay out of pocket," said Krista Li, who has two school-aged children.

But she wondered what that might mean for parents and members of vulnerable populations who don't have the money to pay for testing, which can cost hundreds of dollars.

"It absolutely isn't fair that if you can pay, you can take care of your health. And if you can't, good luck to you," she told The Current's guest host Laura Lynch.

Last month, Alberta's chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw announced that from Aug. 16, testing will no longer be routinely available to people with COVID-19 symptoms, unless they are referred by a family physician, or require hospital care. Additionally, isolation will be recommended, but no longer required by law for people who receive a positive COVID-19 test result. Close contacts will no longer be notified by official contact tracers; that responsibility will fall to the patient.

Alberta will remove most COVID-19 isolation, testing requirements

2 years ago
Duration 2:05
Alberta will be pulling back on requirements for COVID-19 testing, contact tracing and quarantines, despite rising cases in the province.

Hinshaw said that Alberta's vaccination rate had lowered the risk that COVID-19 cases could overwhelm hospitals.

The Current requested an interview with Hinshaw, but did not receive a response. 

University of Toronto epidemiologist Colin Furness said the changes amount to "a very bold experiment."

"It's an experiment on the population to say if we do nothing, if we pull back, if we let people's symptoms just progress, what's going to happen?" he told Lynch. 

"That is not an experiment I would want to be a part of."

Epidemiologist Colin Furness has concerns about Alberta's move to stop widespread COVID-19 testing. (Evan Mitsui/CBC News)

Delta variant, unvaccinated children pose risks

In an op-ed shared a week after the initial announcement, Hinshaw apologized for how the changes were communicated, but reiterated it was necessary to learn to live with the virus.

"Testing every person with a runny nose or sore throat is an extraordinary measure that we cannot sustain, particularly through the respiratory virus season," she wrote.

Furness said that there's no suggestion that widespread COVID-19 testing must be maintained forever, but the emerging delta variant, and lack of vaccinations for kids under 12 must be taken into account.

"We need to get our way through this variant and we need to get our kids inoculated," he said. 

"Once we've got those two milestones, then I think we can start having conversations about how to move past being worried about COVID."

He added that directing people to family physicians or the ER for testing would increase pressure on front-line workers.

"[They] have been under immense strain for a year and a half.... To offload that to them, it doesn't seem like a smart move."

Li added that there is a shortage of family physicians in Alberta, and said she has seen some offices already refuse to offer the tests, to avoid exposing other patients to the virus.

"I don't know what part of the province Dr. Hinshaw is living in, but I know from what I'm seeing that's not tenable," she said.

Pediatricians urge delay

Li said that the lack of information about the return to school, coupled with the rollback of testing, has left her feeling "utterly desperate and utterly hopeless."

"It is just a period of turmoil and ... it's almost cruel to sort of put parents in this situation," she said.

On Monday, the Alberta Medical Association's Section of Pediatrics sent a letter urging Premier Jason Kenney to delay the changes until 85 per cent of all Albertans had been fully vaccinated. Currently, just under 57 per cent of Albertans are fully vaccinated.

"As we near the start of the school year, a lack of mitigation and monitoring measures will result in a situation where the fourth wave will cause COVID-19 to spread quickly throughout unvaccinated populations and children," the letter warned.

How will the delta variant affect kids?

2 years ago
Duration 2:20
As Manitoba parents get ready to send their kids back to school next month, a critical question remains unanswered: What effect will the delta coronavirus strain have on kids too young to be vaccinated?

Kenney said Monday that he intends to stick with the planned changes.

"COVID does not pose a greater risk to younger children, particularly in terms of severe outcomes, than the regular seasonal flu … and that was the case even if you had zero vaccine coverage," he told reporters at an event in Edmonton.

Experts have warned that the effects of the delta variant on children are still unknown.

Kenney also said his government is working on a back-to-school plan, but an open letter from doctors, scientists, union members and professors has called on Ottawa to intervene and directly fund upgrades to Alberta classrooms to help curb COVID-19 transmission.

Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Alex Zabjek and Ashley Fraser.

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