Albertans can now pick up free rapid COVID-19 test kits from pharmacies and clinics as the province braces for an increase in cases of the Omicron variant.
Starting Friday, 700 select pharmacies — in Edmonton, Calgary and Red Deer — and 140 Alberta Health Services sites in other communities will have the test kits available.
The AHS sites supplying the tests can be found here on the Alberta government website. A full list of participating pharmacies will be posted online Friday.
The tests, which use nasal swabs to detect viral proteins in a biological sample, can deliver results in under 20 minutes.
They will provide an important added layer of protection against the spread of COVID-19 at a time when the Omicron variant threatens to dominate infection rates, said Craig Jenne, an infectious diseases expert at the University of Calgary.
“It’s a little step, but a very, very powerful tool when used properly,” Jenne said.
“To use a rapid test in lieu of all other restrictions is probably not the wise strategy, but as an important add-on tool, this can be a very effective extra step.”
The kits will be useful over the holidays, Jenne said. “To do a rapid test prior to dinner to ensure that there are no breakthrough infections coming to your Christmas gathering can be a very effective tool in keeping these environments safe.”
More than 500,000 rapid antigen test kits will be available but the province is trying to secure a larger supply.
Kits will be offered on a first-come, first-served basis. Albertans can pick up one box of five tests once every two weeks.
During an update on COVID-19 Thursday, Premier Jason Kenney said the tests will allow more Albertans to gather together safely.
“This is especially welcome at this time of year as we know more Albertans will be mixing and mingling throughout the Christmas season,” Kenney said.
Watch: How to administer a rapid test
Intended for people who are symptom-free, the tests can be used by people aged 14 and older — and children aged 2 to 13, if the test is performed by an adult.
Albertans who screen positive or who have COVID-19 symptoms should book a PCR test and must isolate for 10 days or until they receive a negative PCR test result.
While following the instructions is important to avoid contamination, the test kits are user-friendly, said pharmacist Shivali Sharma, who owns three Shoppers Drug Mart locations in Edmonton.
“The more you do it, the easier it will become,” Sharma said Thursday. “Just make sure you are following the steps.”
A quick nostril swirl
After prepping the swab, just tilt your head back and insert the swab up your nose, she said.
“You’re going to gently insert the swab into your nostril, about half an inch up, and for about five to 10 seconds, you’re going to swirl.
“After you swirl, you’re going to compress your nostril and rotate for another five to 10 seconds. And then repeat in the second nostril.”
Because it takes time for the body to develop enough protein to be detectable by a rapid test after being exposed to COVID-19, the province recommends using the tests twice per week, 72 hours apart. A negative result does not rule out infection.
Accuracy varies between 50 and 90 per cent and the tests are less reliable during the early stages of infection, said Dr. Lynora Saxinger, an infectious diseases specialist and associate professor at the University of Alberta.
“The test works best in people that have symptoms,” Saxinger said. “The tests, I would still do them, but I would not rely on a negative at all.”
Even with testing, Albertans will need to take precautions, Saxinger said.
She recommends taking a few days’ break between social gatherings, and moving events outside when possible. Distancing, masking and vaccinations remain critically important, she said.
“This is one thing that worries me about the holidays, if people are hopping from event to event,” Saxinger said.
“Even if you’re feeling well, you can have a fair amount of virus that can transmit. There is some risk associated with that.”