As the COVID-19 variant Omicron continues to cause an increase in confirmed cases in Alberta, the province is changing the criteria for who qualifies for a PCR test as well as the procedure around notifying some cases.

Effective immediately, the province will focus investigating cases in “high-priority” settings such as continuing care and well as for those who work in health care.

(Click here for Thursday’s COVID-19 numbers)

Cases not in these settings will still be notified of their test result and will receive a call to ensure they’re aware of their isolation requirements, but the province will not conduct a full investigation in these cases, Dr. Deena Hinshaw said Thursday.

“This is aligned with other provinces and is necessary to ensure our teams are focusing their efforts on the settings of highest priority.”

That means cases outside those high-priority settings may not know where they acquired their case or whether they were known to be a close contact.

Also effective immediately, rapid tests will be the preferred test for most people who have symptoms.

“If you are symptomatic and have access to a rapid testing kit, we encourage you to use that test instead of going for a PCR test,” Hinshaw said.

“If you test positive and have symptoms, consider that as confirmation that you have COVID-19. Please isolate and notify your close contacts.”

Hinshaw said for those with symptoms who test negative, stay in isolation and repeat another rapid test 24 to 48 hours after the first. If negative a second time, stay in isolation until symptoms resolve, but no further measures are required after recovery.

“This recommendation will help ease the burden on our lab and mirrors a similar approach seen in B.C., Ontario, Quebec and other Canadian jurisdictions,” Hinshaw said.

During her news conference, Hinshaw assured a reporter the province will still be able to track COVID-19 cases.

She pointed to monitoring tools like wastewater surveillance and testing results that are still available to the public, as well as keeping track of cases in those who have risk factors.

“It will change our surveillance, however that’s something that’s being seen in every part of the country as Omicron is spreading farther and faster than anything we’ve ever seen before,” she said.

“No one in Canada will be able to maintain PCR testing for every community case with mild symptoms.”

A spokesperson with Alberta Health said people who test positive with a rapid test do not need to notify Alberta Health or Alberta Health Services.

“As cases rise in a such a rapid fashion, it will become increasingly difficult to have an accurate assessment of the total number of cases in Alberta. This is something every jurisdiction across the world is facing and managing, with such a steep rise in case counts,” Chris Bourdeau said, reiterating the province will look at other indicators, such as wastewater and hospitalizations, to assess the impact of the Omicron variant.

The exception to the new rules are if a person lives or works in a high-priority setting or in a person who qualifies for COVID antibody treatment because of a clinical condition. If symptomatic, those people should still get a PCR test regardless of whether they’ve tested positive on a rapid antigen test.

“If anyone has a PCR test booked right now to follow up on a positive rapid test, please cancel it to free up space for others unless you meet the high-risk criteria.”

NDP health critic David Shepherd said the surge in cases is deeply troubling.

“Alberta is choosing to cut back on testing and compromising their own data when we should be enhancing these measures. We can see contact tracing is already overwhelmed, and staffing levels are under pressure,” he said in a statement.

Alberta confirmed an additional 1,625 cases of COVID-19 over the previous 24 hours from about 11,800 tests. That puts the province’s positivity rate at a record high 13.6 per cent. The previous record was 13.44 per cent on May 2, 2021.

There are 318 people receiving care for COVID-19 in hospital, with 64 of those people in the ICU.

“While these numbers have dropped in the recent week, it’s important to remember these are still very high baselines and that it’s too soon to know what the severity impact from our Omicron cases will be.”

There were no COVID-19 deaths reported to Alberta Health over the past 24 hours.

To date, 7,452,649 doses of COVID-19 vaccine have been administered in Alberta.

Since the province opened booster availability to everyone over the age of 18, 196,391 doses have been booked.

On Thursday, the province also released updated screening policies for those who live and work in long-term care, supportive living and hospice facilities.

Fully immunized staff in these facilities who are known close contacts of a case of COVID will be required to take a daily rapid test for 10 days following their exposure. If they test positive on a rapid test, they are not able to work.

“This is one group who would then go on to have confirmatory PCR testing,” Hinshaw said. “But until this is complete, they would not be able to enter their workplace unless 10 days had passed from the positive test result.”

PPE requirements for anyone caring for a suspected or confirmed case in a continuing care facility have been upgraded to include an N95 mask or equivalent.

Fully immunized residents in licensed supportive living facilities who are close contacts or who return after an absence of more than 24 hours must actively screen for COVID symptoms every day and must wear a medical mask when not in their room for 14 days.

“We are taking these precautions given how fast Omicron is spreading and given there are still many things we do not know about the variant.”

In an effort to keep Albertans informed, but also give some employees a “well-deserved” break, Hinshaw announced there will be a change in how the province reports COVID-19 data until the end of the year.

Next week, Hinshaw will provide two in-person updates on Dec. 28 and Dec. 30. The updates will include basic numbers like cases and test numbers.

The usual in-depth data will be posted online on Dec. 29, including a daily breakdown of cases from Dec. 24-28.

The detailed daily breakdown of case numbers will resume on Jan. 4 and every weekday thereafter.

Hinshaw said these plans could change based on the province’s situation.

Shepherd questioned why officials are “going dark” in the middle of a crisis.

“Where is the premier? Why did they not plan for a crisis they had to have seen coming? The UCP is again refusing to be accountable to Albertans at a time when transparency is so greatly needed. Instead of preparing a plan, they’re throwing parties against the spirit of the public health measures they announced hours prior, parties that clearly put people at risk.

“As Omicron spreads at an unprecedented rate, the UCP government has once again made the decision to not lead and to leave Albertans to fend for themselves.”

With files from Caley Ramsay, Global News.

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