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COVID-19 testing may have to be scaled back in Alberta in the future: experts

As the province transitions into a new stage of the pandemic, experts say COVID-19 testing may look different in the future, even though Alberta Health Services said it is status quo for now.

Right now, any Albertan with symptoms, who is a close contact or is connected to an outbreak can get tested for COVID-19 at assessment centres across the province.

But case counts have fallen dramatically over the last couple of months and the number of people who are vaccinated is on the rise, which may – at some point – force a rethink of how testing is done in the province.

“At some point in time, we will have to scale back on that,” said Dr. Stephanie Smith, an infectious disease physician at the University of Alberta Hospital.

“If we get into the fall and we’re not seeing significant numbers of people getting infected, or not seeing significant hospitalizations… then how disruptive do we want to be about testing people and having them in quarantine and that kind of thing if we’re not really seeing that severity of disease?”

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Jason Kindrachuk, a Canada Research Chair in emergent viruses at the University of Manitoba, echoes the sentiment and said mass testing sites are not necessarily sustainable.

“We’ll scale those back but we still have to have the capacity to be able to do those diagnostics,” he said.

READ MORE: Alberta increasing access to COVID-19 rapid testing program

Kindrachuk said testing could evolve to where people go to their family doctor or a medical clinic to get tested if they are feeling unwell.

“If you have a low enough number of cases, now you can actually focus on those cases very quickly — those suspected cases — and get those identified without seeing any further transmission,” he said.

Smith said COVID-19 may have to be managed like other respiratory viral illnesses, such as influenza.

“That would probably be the way we should be going with COVID,” she said. “If you’re ill with respiratory viral symptoms, then you should stay home (but) wouldn’t necessarily need testing, and that’s what happens in the community.”

“In the hospital setting, if people come in with any kind of respiratory viral symptoms, then we do a test that has a whole panel of respiratory viruses,” Smith said, adding the main reason that is done is so patients can be appropriately isolated if need be.

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READ MORE: Alberta resumes testing all positive COVID-19 cases for variants as concern grows over B.1.617

There have been concerns about variants of concern in Alberta. All positive cases are again being screened for variants of concern after a hiatus during the third wave due to high case counts.

Kindrachuk said while testing may evolve, it will be important to continue sequencing and identifying new variants.

“I think there’s a little bit of a black-and-white with this and trying to figure out exactly how much can we scale back, how limited does that make us in terms of our ability to identify these variants and where is that grey area in between where we find that nice, comfortable threshold?” he said.

“The bigger question is going to be in those communities across the globe that right now are being hit very hard, so many resource-limited settings. How do we ensure they’re able to continue to do surveillance and do widespread screening?”

READ MORE: Alberta doctors cautiously optimistic 2 weeks after nearly all COVID-19 restrictions lifted

In a statement to Global News, AHS said it will continue to offer testing to anyone with symptoms as it monitors the impact of moving into the third and final stage of reopening.

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“At this time, there are no changes to the current testing strategy; we will continue to use our current service delivery model,” the statement reads.

“If numbers surge, we increase capacity. If numbers continue to drop, we work with staff to support other areas of the response.”

© 2021 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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