How coronavirus testing works in Alberta

Though Alberta has recorded its first two presumptive case of COVID-19, testing for coronavirus is reserved for those who fall into risk categories and show symptoms.

Who is tested

To qualify for testing, a person must first show symptoms of a viral infection, says Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s chief medical officer of health.

Secondly, the person must also have recently travelled outside of Canada.

“We need to make sure we have enough capacity for testing those who are feeling ill, who’ve returned, because those are the people at the highest risk,” she said. “If they’re feeling well, we would not recommend that they’re tested. 

“If somebody fits into those categories of exposure and they’re feeling sick — so they have fever, cough — then we would want them as their first point of entry into the system to be calling Health Link,” Hinshaw said.

Testing all travellers who show symptoms reflects a significant expansion for the province’s testing protocol. 

Before the second presumptive case was announced Friday, risk categories were limited to people returning from a country that has recorded an outbreak of COVID-19, or been in contact with a confirmed or probable case of COVID-19, or have been in a health-care facility anywhere in the world where cases of coronavirus were seen.

If travellers experience flu-related symptoms such as a fever or cough within 14 days of returning to Canada, they should self-isolate and call Health Link at 811 to arrange followup testing, Hinshaw said.

People who came back from countries of concern without symptoms should still stay home for 14 days, Hinshaw said. 

How to get tested

If you fall into a risk category, call Health Link at 811. Albertans outside of the province should call 1-866-408-5465. 

People can be tested at home, even if they have mild symptoms, Hinshaw said.

“Somebody who is not feeling well, but doesn’t need to be in the hospital can actually have either a public health nurse or a community paramedic come to their home and do the testing,” she said. 

Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s chief medical officer of health, says testing for coronavirus is reserved for patients who fall in the risk categories and show symptoms. (Craig Ryan/CBC)

People calling 811 who show more serious symptoms will be transferred to an emergency department and taken to hospital. 

Physicians and nurses wearing appropriate protective equipment would do the test in a separate room there, Hinshaw said.

In anticipation of increased demand for testing, Alberta Health Services has begun preparations to set up dedicated assessment centres in every health zone across the province, Hinshaw said.

“In-home testing will happen until the capacity is exceeded, and at that point the assessment centres will be in place for people to go to get tested.”

What does the test look like?

The COVID-19 test Alberta is using is done with a nasopharyngeal swab, which Hinshaw described as “a long thin Q-Tip that goes into the back of the nose to swab that part in the nose that moves down into the throat.”

In other jurisdictions, the test for COVID-19 might be done with a mouth or throat swab. 

“We are using the nose swab because our current evidence seems to indicate that this particular swab is very sensitive, and so that’s the one we’ve chosen to go with,” Hinshaw said. 

How long does it take to get results? 

The swab is placed into a tube with liquid that ensures the virus stays intact and is then sent to Alberta Precision Laboratories in Edmonton or Calgary. 

Rural residents must account for the transportation time it takes for the swab to reach the lab. Once the swab arrives at a lab, the test can take up to 24 hours. 

Once the results are available, staff from Alberta Health Services will notify the individual, Hinshaw said. 

What happens test is positive? 

Hinshaw said if someone tested positive, health officials would do “contact tracing,” identifying people the patient had been in close contact with while showing symptoms. 

“We would make sure that every person who was named on that list had a phone call from public health,” she said. 

Everyone on that list of contacts would be asked to stay home for 14 days, whether they were feeling ill or not. 

Anyone on that list of contacts who shows symptoms would be tested. 

As of Friday, 376 completed tests for COVID-19 have been done in Alberta. Of that number, two were positive.

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