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By the end of August, Alberta's government-run testing facilities will shut down and the province will also stop testing close contacts of people with COVID-19.Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

Alberta’s decision to end routine COVID-19 testing means that private testing will be the only option for most people who want to know if they have the virus.

Starting next week, public-health officials in Alberta will no longer recommend that people who have symptoms get a COVID-19 test unless the results are required to guide their medical care, and by the end of the month the province’s government-run testing facilities will shut down. The province will also stop testing close contacts of people with COVID-19.

The decision to significantly scale back testing is part of a wider plan that will also stop contact tracing for most cases except in “high-risk” settings such as long-term care facilities and lift legal isolation requirements for people who test positive for COVID-19 or who have symptoms of the disease.

Alberta’s shift in approach to the pandemic has been widely criticized by medical experts and others, but the province’s Chief Medical Officer of Health has argued that test results are not as important as they once were, since vaccines mean infections have become “decoupled” from severe outcomes.

As well, Deena Hinshaw has argued the end of public-health measures means the province will see an increase in respiratory illnesses such as influenza this fall, which will make it impossible to test every cough or runny nose with the available resources.

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There are already several options for people in Alberta to pay for a private test, although they are mostly focused on people who need test results to travel or businesses conducting employee screening. Some pharmacies and private labs have also offered screening to people without any symptoms, who haven’t been eligible for publicly funded tests since last September.

Other companies are selling rapid screening tests that people can administer from home.

People with symptoms or who have been in contact with someone who has tested positive will have even fewer options, since providers currently offering in-person private tests turn away people who are sick or who are considered a close contact of a positive case.

Anna Banerji, a pediatric infectious disease specialist who teaches at the University of Toronto, said she expects some people will turn to private testing for the peace of mind that was once offered by publicly funded tests, whether they have symptoms, have reason to believe they may have been exposed to COVID-19 or want to know if they could pose a risk to someone else.

She says that raises the prospect that only people with the means will be able to check whether they have the virus.

“I think that there will be more people doing some private testing,” she said.

“It will be the people who are worried, but also the people who can afford it. So that will be causing a divide – the people who have the resources and the people who don’t.”

Shoppers Drug Mart offers rapid antigen screening for $40, while PCR tests, which are more accurate and have lower rates of false negatives, are $150. Prices for PCR tests at other pharmacies or labs are similar. A company called Rapid Test and Trace sells rapid antigen tests made by several Health Canada-approved manufacturers that people can use at home, with prices ranging from $13 to $16 a test. There are other providers that allow people to swab themselves at home and send in the sample for a PCR test.

Dr. Banerji said she was “shocked” at Alberta’s decision to end routine testing and isolation, which she compared to letting a forest fire burn uncontrolled. She argued a COVID-19 test result is still a valuable piece of information for someone even if they have mild symptoms. For the past year and a half, public-health messaging has stressed that COVID-19 is not the same as the flu or common cold, and that hasn’t changed, she said. The same applies to someone who is exposed to the virus.

“If someone tests at home and they find out they’re COVID positive, you hope that they would do the right thing and stay at home so they’re not spreading it,” she said. “And also if someone’s exposed to COVID, you’d think that many people would want to know if they’ve had a significant contact with someone with COVID, because then they can start separating.”

Edmonton-based DynaLife also offers private testing for travel or personal use. The company’s PCR tests run $150, while a serology test from a blood sample is $50.

DynaLife chief executive officer Jason Pincock said the company is working to ramp up its COVID-19 testing capacity as the provincial government ends its own mass testing program.

He expects the company’s testing to continue to focus on travel and for businesses testing their employees. Personal testing unrelated to travel has been a very small part of the company’s overall business because, until now, publicly funded testing was widely available, and he said it’s too soon to know whether more people will seek out that service after Alberta’s new policies take effect.

Mr. Pincock said DynaLife also conducted about half of the publicly funded COVID-19 tests in the province. He added the demand for testing over all has decreased sharply as infections fell after the third wave.

“I think we’re a long way from seeing COVID testing go away completely,” he said.

Mike Kuzmickas, president of Ichor Blood Services in Calgary, said his company expects pretravel testing to increase over the next year, but he doesn’t think the new Alberta policy will affect his company much. Ichor doesn’t provide COVID-19 testing for people with symptoms, although it does offers for asymptomatic people that range from $60 to $120, depending on the test.

William Chung, a senior vice-president with Shoppers Drug Mart, said the company’s private testing business is also mainly focused on travel and employers. He agreed it’s too soon to know how Alberta’s new policies will affect demand, although he said people with symptoms or who know they have been exposed to COVID-19 won’t be offered testing.

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