When someone tests positive for COVID-19, a contact tracer is assigned to their case by the local public health authority. They ask questions to get an idea of who the infected person has been around.
“They really do try and get a really detailed history of where you’ve been, what you’ve been doing, how long you were there, who you saw, how much time you had with them,” explained the University of Alberta’s infectious disease specialist Dr. Lynora Saxinger.
She said all of that information is critical in determining who else might be sick.
“A close contact would be somebody who is within that two metres or six feet of another individual for 15 minutes or longer,” explained Angela Jacobs, associate manager of Alberta Health Services’ notifiable disease program.
Jacobs explained that those 15 minutes are cumulative — so being near someone on multiple occasions for a few minutes at a time can also increase your exposure.
But time isn’t the only factor that’s variable; the amount of physical contact in each situation is also relevant and leads to more risk.
“If you had contact with somebody else’s body fluids, somebody coughed or sneezed on you, you maybe shared a drink or a cigarette, a lip gloss or a fork,” Jacobs said.
Kissing or hugging someone would also make you a close contact, regardless of the duration. Other activities, including singing, can also make someone more likely to be considered a close contact.
In Alberta, close contacts are notified by AHS, need to get tested and self-isolate for two weeks, even if their test comes back negative.
Another factor contact tracers consider is the setting.
“If you’ve been distanced for the entire time, particularly if it’s outside, you’re probably won’t be named as a contact. Indoor exposures become a little more complicated,” Saxinger explained.
With Thanksgiving weekend coming up, many families are hoping to get together – but that can amplify risk, especially if the people aren’t in your cohort.
“If you’re in a small space, somebody’s living room or kitchen, for a couple of hours — even if you’re staying six feet apart — we might consider you a close contact,” Jacobs said.
Jacobs also noted wearing masks is helpful in reducing the risk of getting COVID-19, however, it does not eliminate the risk – and it does not mean you can forget about social distancing.
“It’s not one or the other. Your best protection is wearing a non-medical mask and maintaining the six feet or two metres. And staying home if you’re symptomatic,” Jacobs explained.
She also notes Alberta’s Trace Together App is a tool contact tracers use, but said many people forget it needs to be running on their phone to work.
The federal COVID-19 app is not yet available in Alberta.
While it’s recognized being a close contact, having to get tested and isolate is inconvenient, Jacobs said contact tracers need to focus on protecting people.
“We do often err on the side of caution because at the end of the day, we really want to make sure we’re doing the best we can to prevent that spread.”View link »