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Alberta begins rationing PCR tests as Omicron wave washes over province

Alberta is now limiting PCR testing for COVID-19 to people with risk factors for severe outcomes and those who live or work in high-risk settings.

“With a recent increase in Omicron cases, demand for PCR testing has pushed our testing system beyond its capacity,” Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s chief medical officer of health, told a news conference Monday.

“As many Albertans have found, just getting an appointment for a swab takes several days and the time to get results back is now close to 48 hours after the swab is taken,” Hinshaw said.

“While we have used widespread PCR testing to manage COVID-19 in previous waves, this approach is just not possible with the Omicron variant.”

Those who can be tested include continuing care residents, health-care workers and staff in acute and continuing care settings, shelters and correctional facilities.

PCR testing is also still available for

  • Symptomatic household members of a person who works in continuing or acute care.
  • Individuals with symptoms who have risk factors that would make them qualify for monoclonal antibody treatment if positive for COVID-19.
  • Those with significant immunocompromised conditions.
  • Residents and workers from isolated and remote First Nations, Inuit and Métis communities.
  • Returning international travellers who become symptomatic within 14 days after their arrival.
  • Hospital or emergency-department patients of any age who are ill enough that COVID testing would change treatment plans.

The change to PCR testing is not unique to Alberta, Hinshaw said. 

“All other provinces — including, but not limited to Quebec, B.C. and Ontario — are currently limiting their PCR testing programs to specific categories to help manage with the Omicron wave,” she said.

Watch | Dr. Hinshaw discusses change to PCR testing:

Omicron COVID-19 variant spread prompts changes to PCR testing

1 hour ago

Duration 1:58

Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s chief medical officer of health, announced Monday that COVID-19 testing has pushed PCR testing beyond its capacity. 1:58

The change is effective immediately and Hinshaw asked anyone who has a PCR test booked and who is no longer considered eligible to cancel the appointment.

“Please call 811 or go online to cancel your testing appointment,” she said. “It’s not enough to simply not show up because that slot could be used for a critical high at risk case and only by actively cancelling your appointment.”

Latest numbers

The number of Albertans in hospital with COVID-19 has reached a level not seen in almost two months.

As of Monday’s update there were 635 people being treated in hospital for the illness, 131 more than Friday’s update. 

The total number of patients in hospital included 72 patients with COVID in intensive care units, eight more than Friday.

Six new deaths over the weekend were reported Monday.

“The Omicron variant is so prevalent in our communities right now that if you have COVID-19 symptoms such as a stuffy or runny nose, cough, fever, sore throat or loss of sense of smell or taste, you should assume you have COVID-19 and are legally required to isolate,” Hinshaw said.

“You should stay home and away from others for five or 10 days, depending on your vaccination status or until your symptoms improve, whichever is longer,” she said.

“You can take a rapid test if you have one, but for most people with mild illness, a test is not necessary and symptoms can be managed at home.”

There are officially 57,332 active reported cases in the province  — but the true figure is thought to be far higher due to the high positivity rates and reductions in testing.

The positivity rate now hovers around 38 per cent across the province. 

After the winter break, extended due to concerns over the new variant, students in Alberta returned to the classroom on Monday.

Education Minister Adriana LaGrange has promised thousands of test kits and medical-grade masks will be delivered to students and parents over the next few days.

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