Two doctors are raising concerns over the consistently high demand for COVID-19 testing in Alberta and the length of time it is taking residents to book an appointment.
There are worries that if the system is strained right now, it may not be able to handle demand in the fall, which will see not only COVID-19 but an expected increase in respiratory illnesses.
Alberta was the first province in the country to open up testing to all Albertans, whether they are showing symptoms of COVID-19 or not.
The demand for testing in both the Edmonton and Calgary zone has been sustained over the last few weeks; in the Edmonton zone, appointments booked topped more than 3,700 on July 21 while appointments booked topped 6,400 in the Calgary zone on the same day.
The Edmonton zone averaged 2,908 tests a day in the last week while the Calgary zone averaged 4,540 tests during the same time period.
Dr. Hakique Virani, a public health professor at the University of Alberta, said the situation is worrisome.
“It underscores how important it is to get a handle on this before flu season so that things like testing capacity, ICU capacity, ventilator capacity, emergency room capacity, primary care capacity doesn’t get strained because we’re dealing with multiple regular public health issues at the same time we’re dealing with an extraordinary public health issue,” he said.
Virani, who is against the idea of Edmonton being an NHL hub city, said that Albertans should also be able to get quick turnaround of their test results like hockey players, who will be tested daily and given their results back within 24 hours.
Those tests are being done by private lab Dynalife, not Alberta Health Services.
“If we can find a way to get hockey players their results within 24 hours after being tested…could that capacity not be secured for the public?” he said.
AHS said residents with positive results are told within 24 hours while it may take up to four days for notification of a negative result, though there may be exceptions due to the high demand for testing currently.
On Monday, Dr. Deena Hinshaw reminded Albertans they access their test results quicker than waiting for a call from AHS if they have a MyHealth Records account.
The online service has been available to Albertans since early 2019 and allows people to see their recent lab test results, prescriptions and immunization history, among other things.
The demand for testing comes as Alberta sees a spike in the number of COVID-19 identified; while numbers fell in the spring, they recently surged and have surpassed 100 cases on most days for the last week and a half.
In April, the province announced it was aiming to reach 20,000 tests a day by May – a goal that has not yet been reached.
“Our lab has been able to create that capacity…[but] there are other aspects of the system, such as the ability to get the swabs done, the ability to get the calls back to the individuals who have had a test done that we are continually working on improving,” chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw said on July 27.
Hinshaw also said health professionals who had been redeployed to support aspects of the pandemic response have returned to their original roles.
“You could surmise that if we are strained now, when we move into the fall and people are in closer contact with students back in school, with people being indoors more because it’s colder – what you would suspect would be that there would be a rise in respiratory illnesses, influenza-like illnesses in general,” said Dr. Kirsten Fiest, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Calgary.
She said the circumstances of the pandemic have changed how people view getting tested.
“If someone had a runny nose a year ago, they would have gone to work or sent their kid to daycare potentially. Now it’s going to look a little bit different.
“Now, if you have a runny nose, you’re going to get tested and you’re going to want your children to get tested.”
Fiest said if people are not able to quickly and easily get tested, more people will self-isolate at home.
Dr. Kristen Klein, medical officer of health with the communicable disease control team within AHS, said there has been increased demand for testing.
Klein said Albertans who are symptomatic or in high-risk groups — like a healthcare worker or a resident of a congregate living setting — are given priority for testing while asymptomatic Albertans may have to wait longer.
A statement to Global News said symptomatic individuals are being tested within 24 hours while asymptomatic individuals are tested within five to seven days.
AHS said additional staff have been deployed to assessment centres and hours have been extended to help with the increased demand.
Klein said work is underway to ensure the system is prepared for the fall, such as hiring more staff.
“It’s obviously constantly evolving and the demand ebbs and flows. I expect the numbers will increase in the fall when we see other respiratory viruses, including the flu, and we are getting prepared now to be able to accommodate that,” she said.
Daily appointment data for the Edmonton Zone:
- July 20: 2,882
- July 21: 3,766
- July 22: 3,178
- July 23: 3,231
- July 24: 2,767
- July 25: 2,026
- July 26: 2,506
Daily appointment data for the Calgary Zone:
- July 20: 2,591
- July 21: 6,417
- July 22: 5,830
- July 23: 5,376
- July 24: 4,808
- July 25 3,192
- July 26: 3,572
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