Alberta expands rapid testing to asymptomatic long-term care staff, oilsands workers

EDMONTON — People who work with Albertans most vulnerable to COVID-19 may soon be able to find out whether they have the disease within minutes, even if they do not have any symptoms.

On Tuesday, the Alberta government announced it was expanding its rapid testing program at long-term care and designated supporting living facilities to include asymptomatic staff.

Previously, rapid tests were given only to those who exhibited COVID-19 symptoms over the past seven days.

“This expansion will eventually cover 36,000 staff in continuing care facilities across the province,” said Health Minister Tyler Shandro.

Shandro said the tests, which can produce a preliminary result in less than an hour, will be done once a week to start. If the positivity rate in a particular community is above five per cent, facilities there will be asked to test staff twice per week.

Those who test positive will have to isolate and be given a Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) test for confirmation.

Shandro acknowledged the effectiveness of rapid tests on people without symptoms is still being studied.

A false negative is possible early on in infection even with the most sensitive rapid and PCR testing methods, according to Health Canada.

RAPID TESTING ALREADY UNDERWAY AT OIL BASES

Shandro also announced the province is giving Suncor Energy the ability to test its workers in northern Alberta and pledged 7,000 rapid tests.

The pilot, which will test 325 workers in Fort McMurray and Fort McKay every week for 10 weeks, is already underway. Shandro did not say when the testing had begun.

“Rapid COVID screening allows us to quickly isolate and detect new cases and gives us the opportunity to break the chain of transmission. This is just one more layer of protection for our workforce,” said Dennis Banks, vice president of Suncor’s Edmonton refinery.

MORE SCREENING ON THE WAY

Shandro said the province is currently developing screening programs for correctional facilities, shelters and schools. He said they would include asymptomatic testing but did not provide a timeline.

Alberta’s expedited testing pilot program began at Calgary International Airport in November to help international travelers avoid a mandatory 14-day quarantine period.

Later in the month, the province expanded the program, supplying kits to standard COVID-19 testing sites and hospitals throughout the province.

In December, the pilot expanded again to include seven homeless shelters and long-term care and designated supportive living facilities via mobile testing units.

Two versions of rapid COVID-19 test kits have been approved by Health Canada – the Abbott IDNow and PanBio.

Shandro has said previously the tests can identify positive cases of COVID-19 in under 20 minutes.

Results from traditional lab-developed and PCR tests can take several hours or days.

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