Due to the rising demand for PCR tests, Alberta is changing the eligibility for those who will receive them.

The province says wait times for booking a PCR test are nearing four days and turnaround time for providing results to patients is approaching 48 hours.

To ensure that patient care decisions are supported by timely diagnostic information, PCR testing eligibility will now be focused on those who have clinical risk factors for severe outcomes and those who live and work in high-risk settings.

“While we have been used to managing COVID through widespread PCR testing, that approach is not possible with the Omicron variant. At this time, most people who have mild symptoms don’t need a PCR test. For those without risk factors such as immunosuppression, they should self-isolate and manage their symptoms at home, using a rapid test if they have one,” said Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta's chief medical officer of health.

Alberta Health Services has updated the online COVID-19  assessment tool to help Albertans determine whether they need a PCR test, what type of care to seek based on their symptoms and how to take care of symptoms at home with appropriate support.

It is recommended Albertans use the online COVID-19 assessment tool to check their symptoms or the symptoms of someone they may be caring for before they call Health Link.

At this time, the assessment tool has been updated to reflect new PCR testing criteria for adults. The tool will be updated later this week for children and youth.

Those with mild illness should not visit emergency departments seeking a test, as tests in those settings are only used when a test is needed for patient care. If Albertans are unsure whether they need to talk to a doctor about their illness, they can also use the Alberta Medical Association tool to determine what they should do. Most people with mild illness do not need a test or a conversation with their doctor," the province said in a release

Hinshaw said employers and organizations should not require individuals with mild symptoms to have a PCR test to be eligible for sick time off work. Adding it is critical to support those who are sick to stay home with no testing requirements at this time of high transmission.

Eligibility criteria

Effective immediately, PCR tests will be available only for the following individuals:

  • Continuing care residents and health-care workers and staff in acute and continuing care settings, shelters and correctional facilities who meet one or more of the following criteria: 
    • need confirmation of a positive rapid test on screening
    • have COVID-19 symptoms
    • are part of an outbreak investigation where public health has requested lab-based PCR testing
  • Symptomatic household members of a person who works in continuing care or acute care.
  • Emergency department or hospital patients of all ages who meet one or more of the following criteria: 
    • inpatients who develop new COVID-19 symptoms while in hospital
    • patients being admitted for symptoms consistent with COVID-19
    • patients in the emergency department with respiratory illness where a test will change treatment plans
  • Symptomatic community patients who would be eligible for Sotrovimab (monoclonal antibody) treatment if positive: 
    • Those who are not immunized and are: 
      • age 55 and over
      • 18 years and over with one of the following health conditions: diabetes, obesity, chronic kidney disease, congestive heart failure, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or moderate to severe asthma
      • children aged 12 to 17, with a referral by a pediatric I.D. specialist
      • pregnant
    • Those who are immunosuppressed (transplant, active cancer or systemic immune treatment), regardless if immunized or not.
  • People from isolated and remote First Nation, Inuit and Métis communities, and individuals travelling to these communities for work.
  • Asymptomatic continuing care residents returning/readmitted from other health-care settings.
  • Pediatric and adult asymptomatic transplant donors and recipients, prior to transplant.
  • Pediatric and adult oncology patients, prior to commencing chemotherapy.
  • Newborns born to COVID-19-positive parents.
  • Returning international travellers who become symptomatic within 14 days after their arrival.