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Alberta restricts variant testing to keep up with basic COVID-19 screening

Last Updated May 2, 2021 at 9:59 pm MDT

CALGARY (CityNews) — Just months ago, Albertans seemed optimistic. Vaccines were on the way, and the province was bending the curve.

Now at arguably the worst point of the pandemic yet, demand for COVID-19 testing is surging, forcing Alberta Health Services to pull back on screening for variant strains to instead focus its resources on keeping up with general COVID-19 screening.

Despite variants now accounting for a majority of Alberta’s COVID-19 cases, screening for variant strains will only happen in cases of outbreaks, in hospital and emergency departments, for health care workers, and for those returning from international travel as of May 1.

“If we’re now at the exponential part of our third wave where we can no longer keep up with the testing that is needed, that’s a worrisome sign to me,” says Dr. Joe Vipond, an emergency care physician in Calgary.

“In the first wave, in particular, it was a thing that probably saved us, that we had a lot of contact tracers and we had really good systems for following up on that.”

In a statement to CityNews, Alberta Health Services says that because the B.1.1.7 variant is now dominant, it is no longer necessary to screen all positive results.

“This change is being made to maintain required lab capacity for general COVID-19 testing with average turnaround times of 24 hours.”

But while AHS makes changes to avoid an overwhelmed testing system as cases surge now, Dr. Vipond says there could be further reaching implications as well.

“For Albertans and for the world as a whole it’d be important to have data on their community spread. Is the community spread faster than the original variant? Are they susceptible to the vaccines?” he asks.

“We don’t know this stuff yet.”

AHS explains they are currently able to complete about 17,000 tests each day and says that Alberta has the most robust strategy for monitoring the evolution of COVID-19 in the country.

But others aren’t as confident.

“We are continuing to have exponential growth, and we really haven’t put in any particularly impressive COVID restrictions,” Dr. Vipond says.

“And so I have concerns that things will continue to get worse.”

Alberta currently has one of the highest per capita COVID-19 infection rates in North America.