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Alberta’s health authority has opened a new COVID-19 testing facility in Calgary, added more staff to co-ordinate with patients, and expanded testing in pharmacies after a spike of infections in recent weeks overwhelmed the system.

Infections in Alberta have increased steadily since early July, with active cases quadrupling, new daily cases routinely topping 100 and hospitalizations hitting a level not seen since May.

The increase prompted warnings from health officials that people were becoming complacent and prompted thousands, largely in the Calgary area, to seek testing. The province has led the country in COVID-19 testing and is encouraging people to get tested even if they do not have symptoms.

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But the sudden demand caused waiting times for asymptomatic testing to increase and some people in Calgary reported difficulty booking tests. Health officials said the snag was related to the staffing required to handle and process referrals, rather than supplies or lab capacity.

James Wood, spokesman for Alberta Health Services, said in an e-mail that the new testing centre near Calgary’s Stampede Park opened last Thursday. AHS has added staff, increased hours to cope with the demand and made it easier for people to book tests in neighbouring communities if facilities closest to them are full, he said.

“We are confident these steps will help to alleviate delays in getting appointments, allow us to meet demand, and increase our testing numbers and daily capacity,” the e-mail said.

Last week, provincial Chief Medical Officer Deena Hinshaw released numbers that suggested Alberta’s testing system is identifying more cases than in other jurisdictions.

Her department did serology testing, which uses blood samples to detect COVID-19 antibodies, to estimate that almost 36,000 people in the province had been infected with the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 by late mid-May, compared with about 6,000 confirmed cases by that point. She said the numbers indicated the province was identifying about 17 per cent of all cases – significantly higher than in other jurisdictions in Canada and around the world.

She also announced the expansion of a program that allows pharmacies to conduct tests from 20 locations included in the initial pilot to any pharmacy in the province. Only people without symptoms can be tested at pharmacies.

The pharmacy program has so far tested more than 10,000 people.

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Both London Drugs and Loblaw, which owns Shoppers Drug Mart and has pharmacies in its Superstore grocery chain, participated in the pilot and said they planned to expand to other locations.

Loblaw had 10 pharmacies in the pilot, which conducted about 6,000 tests, and by Friday had increased that to 43 locations with more applications moving through the process, said Karen Sullivan, the company’s director of pharmacy professional affairs for Western Canada.

Ms. Sullivan said demand has been “very high,” particularly in Calgary. She said Alberta was among the first jurisdictions in the world to allow pharmacists to conduct COVID-19 tests and commended the province for the initiative.

“It’s about access,” she said in an interview. “This is an incredibly innovative program.”

Alberta was also the first province to open up asymptomatic testing to anyone who wants it.

Craig Jenne, an infectious diseases expert at the University of Calgary, said asymptomatic testing is important because there is clear evidence that people can become infected and pass along the virus, even if they do not have symptoms.

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Still, Dr. Jenne said people shouldn’t overestimate the value of that testing, because it represents only a snapshot in time and could be out of date almost immediately after someone leaves a testing facility if they come into contact with the virus.

“If we wait until we know they’re actually quite sick before we refer them to testing, we may have missed the opportunity to limit the spread,” he said.

“By having increased testing capacity and being able to look at people who are asymptomatic but maybe have a high likelihood of having been exposed … we can really do a good job of limiting viral spread and keeping the numbers down in the community.”

Dr. Jenne said most people seeking asymptomatic testing appear to be people with a reason to get tested – for example, because they suspect they may have come into contact with someone who was sick.

Alberta confirmed 113 new cases of COVID-19 this past Friday, for a total of 10,843 cases since the pandemic began. There have been 196 deaths, including five that were confirmed on Friday.

We have a weekly Western Canada newsletter written by our B.C. and Alberta bureau chiefs, providing a comprehensive package of the news you need to know about the region and its place in the issues facing Canada. Sign up today.

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