This article has been updated with a response from Alberta Health Services.
St. Albert’s COVID-19 task force wants to see more work done to make sure residents have easy access to testing and eventual vaccination for the virus.
On Aug. 5, the task force approved a recommendation for city council to advocate for testing and vaccination sites to open in St. Albert.
It also moved unanimously to recommend that the city develop a vaccination implementation plan for when a vaccine becomes available.
The recovery task force is a 10-member committee, which includes a cross-section of business and community leaders.
They work together to make recommendations to council on potential actions for St. Albert to assist residents, businesses and not-for-profits to achieve full recovery from the adverse economic impacts of COVID-19.
Lack of access
Task force member Nick Parkinson, who is also the president and CEO of YMCA Northern Alberta, asked how the city could prepare to ensure residents have an expedited vaccination system in place once a vaccine becomes available.
In the early days of the pandemic, the City of St. Albert was approached by the province about a potential COVID-19 testing site at Servus Place, but then the province deemed it was ‘not necessary’, said Kevin Scoble, chief administrative officer for the city.
Six months in, St. Albert still doesn’t have one, he said. At this time, no pharmacies in the city are participating in the province’s plan to expand sites for asymptomatic testing, either.
The closest COVID-19 asymptomatic testing site for St. Albert residents is about a 20-minute drive to the Shoppers Drug Mart on 137 Avenue in Edmonton.
The city could start advocating for a vaccination centre now, Scoble said.
“Otherwise, we may find ourselves going somewhere in Edmonton or Sherwood Park for a vaccination,” he said.
"If we've got a (vaccination plan) ready to go, we can show the province to incent them to use us as a vaccination location."
It can be difficult for residents who want or need to get tested frequently to find access to sites nearby. Coun. Jacquie Hansen said her daughter works at a local restaurant and has had to go into Edmonton four times to get a COVID-19 test.
“Because she’s in contact with so many people, that’s what she wants to do. And it’s a shame that we don’t have that here, because there are lots of people in that boat,” Hansen said.
A second wave would be devastating to the city’s economic and social resiliency, said Coun. Ken MacKay, who chaired the meeting. With a population of around 66,000, he said he was “disappointed” that no testing sites are located in St. Albert.
“I’d like to see one, I think we should even have two,” he said. “Our pharmacies are no different than other pharmacies, some of them are large enough to facilitate testing.”
The task force also vocalized their support for council’s decision to mandate masks in indoor public spaces, transit and civic facilities effective Aug. 8.
The next task force meeting is scheduled to take place on Aug. 19 from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m.
Many places in Edmonton and area have been explored as potential testing sites over the past five months, wrote Alberta Health Services spokesperson Sabrina Atwal in an email to the Gazette.
"Establishing assessment sites is dependent on a number of variables including access, size of space, parking, patient and staff safety, operational feasibility, staffing resources. We did explore possible sites in St. Albert but no suitable locations were identified," the email reads.
Recently, AHS added a new feature to COVID-19 test booking online to allow Albertans to select from a list of testing assessment centres that are within 75-kilometres of their postal code. The extension of asymptomatic swabbing in provincial pharmacies is another "key strategy," according to AHS.
Letter to ministry
St. Albert MLA Marie Renaud said her office will be writing a letter to the Minister of Health asking the province to consider opening a testing site in St. Albert.
“There's always this assumption that just given the proximity to Edmonton, we're covered for different things, for different services. And really, that's not a fair assessment at all,” Renaud said.
As the sixth-largest city in Alberta, Renaud said she was “disappointed” to see a lack of testing sites in St. Albert.
No local pharmacies have announced they will be offering asymptomatic testing yet.
Booked appointments through Alberta Health Services show the closest locations for testing are on 29th Avenue in Edmonton, Sherwood Park, or Onoway. All are at least a 30-minute drive away.
St. Albert may be Edmonton’s smaller neighbour to the north, but asking residents to drive long distances to get tested isn’t fair, she said. And not everyone has access to a vehicle.
“If people believe that they have to drive 40 minutes to get a test, they may put it off and think, ‘Well, I don't really need to get it, I'll be fine.’ And that is exactly the behaviour we don't want to support.”
Especially as thousands of students are preparing to go back to school in the fall, she said.
“We need to have quick easy access to testing for us to be able to open safely and for our businesses and the economy to continue to grow. That is an essential part of it.”
St. Albert is a natural hub for smaller surrounding communities as well, including Morinville, Sturgeon County, Legal and Redwater. Opening a testing site in St. Albert would allow for greater access, Renaud said.
And just like testing sites, planning for vaccination sites will also be important.
“This could really be establishing a foundation for that,” she said.
“I understand that there’s a cost involved, but it’s going to be important that not just the big urban centres, like Calgary in Edmonton, have easy access to these sites.”