Alberta is overwhelmed with demand for COVID-19 tests in its largest city and is reassigning employees in an attempt to reduce the backlog as the number of people infected with the novel coronavirus surges in the province.
Alberta Health Services (AHS) says it has been inundated with thousands of people, largely from Calgary, using its online form to request testing. In the city, online referrals exceeded 7,000 on a single day last week, setting a record that surpasses the number of people usually tested across the entire province per day.
The number of COVID-19 cases has spiked in Alberta in recent weeks as new infections per capita outpace the rest of the country. Alberta recorded 368 new cases on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, pushing up the number of active cases to 1,109. In neighbouring B.C., Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry warned that her province is at risk of a pandemic rebound after reporting 102 new cases over the weekend.
Alberta built one of Canada’s most robust testing systems as the pandemic rippled across the country. It was the first jurisdiction in Canada to introduce asymptomatic testing. However, the system’s usefulness could drop if priority patients such as close contacts of positive cases are unable to quickly get tested and receive their results, and if others become frustrated with delays.
Officials have repeatedly urged people to get tested, even if they have no symptoms, and Health Minister Tyler Shandro repeated the government’s promise on Monday that anyone who wants a test can get one. However, asymptomatic testing was unavailable in Calgary on the weekend and remains scarce as test requests from health care workers and symptomatic residents take priority.
Mauro Chies, the chair of Alberta Precision Laboratories, which AHS owns, on Monday said the problem created by demand in Calgary is compounded by staff shortages.
“We’re seeing a larger influx of individuals who are asymptomatic coming forward to the centres,” he said, noting that the system has not yet hit its overall capacity. “Where we’re having a bit of a struggle right now is finding staff to assist in the assessment centres, to be able to book all the patients that are calling in.”
About 8,000 people in Alberta used the AHS online system on Sunday to book an appointment for a COVID-19 test, and 4,490 of those were from the Calgary region, according to AHS spokesman Kerry Williamson. Last week, online referrals averaged about 4,000 per day for the Calgary region, and hit 7,192 on Thursday. By way of comparison, online referrals averaged about 350 per day in Calgary one month ago.
Tammara Francis is among those who may have been exposed to COVID-19 as the economy reopens and socializing increases. She attended a cycle class in Calgary earlier this month and later received word that someone else at the session tested positive.
Ms. Francis and her roommate got tested last Tuesday; health officials later told her that her result was flawed, while her roommate’s swab came back negative. Ms. Francis believed she booked another test for Thursday, but when she checked online Monday, the appointment was not there. She called AHS and was still on hold late Monday afternoon.
“It is such a mess,” the 37-year-old said. “It is turning into our second wave. We need to be more careful.”
This comes as the percentage of positive tests creeps upward after staying below one per cent for most of June. The positivity rate hit 1.98 per cent on Friday, but still remains far below the peak of roughly 8 per cent in April. The Public Health Agency of Canada, in a report released Friday, said the positive rate for the country between July 8 and 14 was 0.8 per cent.
Lynora Saxinger, an infectious-diseases specialist at the University of Alberta, is concerned about the province’s recent testing trends.
“If the per-cent positivity is going up and the [number of] tests are going up, we’re in big trouble,” she said.
Alberta has had just four days where it tested more than 7,000 people, with the most recent coming last Friday. The province has performed 590,502 tests on 503,190 people since the pandemic began, according to government statistics. Calgary is the only region in Alberta under testing pressure, Mr. Williamson said.
According to government data, people between the ages of 20 and 29 account for the most new cases and most active cases between July 13 and 19.
The province’s contact tracers are finding about 15 to 20 close contacts for every COVID-19 case, up from about 6 per case when the pandemic began. The rise in close contacts, which take testing priority, is likely contributing to the scarcity of available slots, Dr. Saxinger said.
Further, people seeking tests in hopes of mitigating risks tied to socializing may also be weighing on demand. While she says she believes testing asymptomatic people is useful, negative results can create a false sense of security.
“You can’t actually rely on it because, of course, you could become positive the day after you test or it could be one of those false negatives,” Dr. Saxinger said.
Sign up for the Coronavirus Update newsletter to read the day’s essential coronavirus news, features and explainers written by Globe reporters and editors.