As Alberta continues to be inundated with new COVID-19 cases that are also swamping hospitals, the province’s health authority confirmed Friday that testing for variants of concern is being significantly scaled back to maintain lab capacity for general coronavirus testing.
“Alberta’s COVID-19 testing program will no longer screen for variants of concern on all positive COVID-19 test samples,” Alberta Health Services spokesperson Kerry Williamson said in an email to Global News on Friday night. “Instead, Alberta Precision Laboratories (APL) will begin screening for variants of concern only among targeted populations, including hospitalized and emergency department patients, patients involved in outbreaks, health-care workers and recent international travellers.
“These populations have a higher risk of being infected with a variant of concern or for spreading a variant of concern.”
Global News has obtained an internal memo dated Sept. 10 from APL to health-care providers about the change in procedure which notes “positivity rates and overall test volumes of COVID-19 have rapidly increased, necessitating a change in the testing strategy to maintain laboratory capacity and turnaround times.”
“Alberta’s testing program is currently completing approximately 10,000 tests per day, and most patients are receiving their results within 24 to 48 hours,” Williamson told Global News.
He noted that currently, “virtually all COVID-19 cases in Alberta are the Delta variant, and public health measures in place to prevent and manage spread of the virus are now based on the variants of concern being widespread in our community.”
According to Williamson, APL began screening positive COVID-19 cases for variants of concern in early 2021 but shifted to “a targeted approach to screening this past May in order to meet rising demand during the third wave of the pandemic.”
“APL also continues to conduct full-genome sequencing on hundreds of samples per week to monitor for the emergence of new strains in the province,” he said.
The news comes as Alberta tries to increase hospital capacity amid the pandemic’s fourth wave by postponing significant numbers of non-urgent surgeries and procedures.
On Friday, Alberta Health announced that that 1,473 new cases of COVID-19 had been identified in the past 24 hours. With those new infections, Alberta’s total number of active COVID-19 cases stood at 16,265 on Friday afternoon.
Alberta Health said 686 people were in hospital because of COVID-19 as of Friday, with 169 of those in ICUs.
Since COVID-19 cases began to rapidly rise last month, Premier Jason Kenney, Health Minister Tyler Shandro and chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw have come under intense scrutiny for what some health experts and health-care professional have called an inadequate response to the pandemic’s fourth wave in Alberta.
Last week, the province announced it would once again require Albertans to wear masks in most indoor public spaces and force bars and restaurants to stop selling liquor after 10 p.m. in an attempt to bend the rising curve of COVID-19 infections.
Speaking at a news conference in Rocky Mountain House, Alta., on Friday, Shandro said his government would like to see what impact the province’s recent public health measures have on COVID-19 hospitalizations before bringing in any other restrictions to address the crisis.
“We are taking this opportunity to see what that effect is, and for us to continue to look at those numbers and the opportunity to continue to work with (Hinshaw) and her office on what might further be necessary,” Shandro said.
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