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Alberta chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw updates media on the COVID-19 situation in Edmonton on March 20, 2020.JASON FRANSON/The Canadian Press

Alberta has decided to focus its tests for COVID-19 on residents of the province deemed most at risk, and is urging people with mild symptoms to self-isolate at home and stay away from others.

Some health experts have said that scaling up testing is a critical measure because it allows public-health officials to get a better sense of how widespread the disease is and to focus their efforts on containing the spread – an approach that helped countries such as South Korea.

Alberta has been among provinces that have tested people with less severe symptoms, a measure that some experts said was key to detecting community spread of the virus.

On Monday, Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, told a media briefing that everyone wanting tests would ideally be tested, but it’s unlikely that Alberta can reach that level so it will focus its testing capacity on those most at risk.

Previously, travellers who returned to Alberta from outside Canada were being tested.

Now Alberta is urging returning travellers to self-quarantine for 14 days, a step Dr. Hinshaw said was sufficient to protect other Albertans. “We only have so much testing capacity,” she said, when asked Monday about the issue.

Dr. Hinshaw said previous testing commitments will be honoured, but there will be a new focus on symptomatic people with respiratory illness, residents of continuing care and other such facilities, and people returning from travels abroad between March 8 and 12 before self-isolation protocols were in place.

Also being targeted as a testing priority are health-care workers with respiratory symptoms. That, she said, could help them get back to work more quickly if they are cleared.

Dr. Hinshaw said she understands that testing provides a comfort to those tested, but most who get COVID-19 will experience minor symptoms, and the best thing for those people is to stay home and self-isolate.

She noted that Alberta is following an approach consistent with other provinces.

“This new approach, which has been adopted in other provinces, reflects the fact that the number one thing you can do if you have mild symptoms isn’t to get tested; it is to stay home and self-isolate away from others.”

Providing an update on the status of the virus in the province, Dr. Hinshaw said there were 42 new cases of COVID-19, with no new deaths. That means 301 cases have been identified in the province, she told the briefing.

The provincial Chief Medical Officer of Health said 18 people had been hospitalized, with seven in the intensive-care unit. Three Albertans have recovered, she said.

There have been about 3,000 tests a day in Alberta, Dr. Hinshaw said, which she credited to such factors as the province having a single-payer health-care delivery organization and the pooling of equipment so processing can run 24-7. “People are running this equipment all day and night so we can use this equipment to its fullest potential,” she said.

She said “in an ideal world” she could test anyone who had symptoms, and identify any cases. “It’s unlikely we will be able to reach that kind of testing capacity, to be able to test all Albertans with mild symptoms," she said. “The adjustments we have made are those pragmatic: How do we focus that capacity?'” she said.

In British Columbia, provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry acknowledged concerns about that province’s similar shift in testing.

“I know there has been some concern expressed that our change in our strategy for testing means that there is a bunch of cases that we are actually not getting to or that we are not recognizing in the community,” she told a media briefing.

According to Health Minister Adrian Dix, at the same news conference, B.C. is completing approximately 3,300 to 3,600 COVID-19 tests a day, and has, so far, tested 18,000 people for the coronavirus.

“While we do recognize that people who have symptoms and had an exposure may have this disease, it does not mean that everybody needs to be tested," Dr. Henry said.

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