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AHS actively recruiting more contact tracers as COVID-19 cases in Alberta climb

Click to play video 'AHS expands COVID-19 contact tracing program as cases rise' AHS expands COVID-19 contact tracing program as cases rise
WATCH (Sept. 2): Dr. Chris Sikora, a medical officer of health with AHS, said they've increased their staff of contact tracers to meet the need as COVID-19 cases increase in recent weeks. Sikora said in the early days, Edmonton was getting between three to five cases per day,compared to 40 to 50 new cases per day in the last several weeks – Sep 2, 2020

In July, Alberta Health Services had between 280 and 300 contact tracers who notified close contacts of people who tested positive for COVID-19.

But at that time, the number of active cases across the province was much lower than it is now. Over about two weeks in July, the number of daily active COVID-19 cases in Alberta rose from 584 to 1,293.

On Oct. 26, there were a total of 4,477 active cases across the province. Dr. Deena Hinshaw said Alberta confirmed 572 COVID-19 cases on Saturday and 504 cases on Sunday.

Read more: Alberta puts mandatory 15-person limit on social gatherings in Edmonton, Calgary

This month, in October, the province has about 800 contact tracers — including full time, part time, redeployed and casual staff — and it wants to hire more.

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AHS is aiming to soon have a total of about 1,180 contact tracers.

Click to play video 'Albertans with COVID-19 becoming more uncooperative during contact tracing: Hinshaw' Albertans with COVID-19 becoming more uncooperative during contact tracing: Hinshaw
Albertans with COVID-19 becoming more uncooperative during contact tracing: Hinshaw – Oct 13, 2020

“AHS has posted positions and hired new staff for the team, in addition to redeployment from within our own health system,” AHS spokesperson James Wood told Global News on Oct. 27.

“We continue to review our staffing numbers to ensure we have the support required to meet increasing demands.”

READ MORE: How does COVID-19 contact tracing work? Alberta doctor explains

During a news conference on Oct. 26, Hinshaw explained the job gets harder as case counts rise.

“One of the challenges of rising cases is that it creates pressure on certain key elements of our COVID-19 response, including contact tracing. We have been working with AHS on new strategies to more effectively and efficiently notify close contacts of confirmed cases of COVID-19.

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“Right now, AHS has more than 800 staff on its contact tracing team,” Hinshaw said.

“AHS is increasing their staffing as quickly as possible, and they are actively recruiting more people to meet these increasing demands.”

Click to play video '‘We have now crossed a tipping point’: Hinshaw issues warning about implications of COVID-19 spike' ‘We have now crossed a tipping point’: Hinshaw issues warning about implications of COVID-19 spike
‘We have now crossed a tipping point’: Hinshaw issues warning about implications of COVID-19 spike – Oct 26, 2020

In an effort to get information to Albertans more quickly, the province’s top doctor said event organizers are now being asked to help notify potentially infected guests.

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“If a positive case attended an event while infectious, AHS will now notify the organizer and provide them with written notification that can be directly emailed to all event attendees. We will be asking event organizers to send these emails within 24 hours of being contacted by AHS.

“This change will make the close contact notification process quicker for large events,” she said.

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AHS will continue to make notification phone calls if an event organizer can’t handle the rapid email notification process.

“AHS will also continue to directly notify close contacts of cases who were exposed outside of any public or private event and will continue to directly contact anyone who tests positive for COVID-19,” Hinshaw said.

Click to play video 'COVID-19: Concerns raised about contact tracing in Alberta' COVID-19: Concerns raised about contact tracing in Alberta
COVID-19: Concerns raised about contact tracing in Alberta – Oct 20, 2020

The process of contact tracing involves phoning a positive case, identifying close contacts and following up with those individuals in the hopes of limiting further transmission.

Early in the pandemic, it took Alberta workers about six-and-a-half hours to contact trace a confirmed case, Dr. Kristin Klein, medical officer of health with the communicable disease control team at AHS, told Global News on July 24. The goal was 24 hours.

But as case numbers in the province and the number of close contacts per case rose, it took longer — sometimes several days.

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“It definitely adds a lot of workload for the [communicable disease control] team,” Klein said at the time.
“We have our contact tracers call each of those contacts and provide some advice and ask questions about how they’re doing and recommend testing. So every additional contact that someone has is another phone call.”

“What helps our team is when people keep that circle small and they can easily tell us who they’ve been around,” Klein explained.

Albertans can help by keeping lists of close contacts. Some are proactively notifying family and friends of positive test results.

“That does get people staying home earlier and then we are just a confirmation call, basically,” explained Angela Jacobs, AHS’ notifiable disease program associate manager.

Some businesses are asking for contact information at the door.

“For employees, that’s a fairly easy thing for businesses to do. For customer and public individuals who might be accessing services, it might be a little more difficult,” Jacobs said.

“The best thing we can do as a community is to physical distance, wear those masks, follow the guidelines, wash your hands.”

While there are delays in contact tracing, Alberta is not in the same position as Toronto, where some contact tracing has stopped altogether as a result of increasing pressures.

“We certainly haven’t reached that point in Alberta, where that decision is being made, but there’s always people evaluating,” Jacobs said.

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NDP Leader Rachel Notley says a recent Harvard University study recommends a ratio of tracers to population that would mean about 1,300 tracers for Alberta.

“If we had more contact tracers, and if we were able to have faster turnaround on testing, we’d have a better idea of where to take targeted action,” she said Tuesday.

“Right now, I would say, quite frankly, the indication that I get is that to some degree we’re flying a bit blind.”

Read more: 20 million Canadians still don’t have full access to the COVID Alert app. Why?

Notley also wants to see the national contact tracing app launched in Alberta.

“It is really unacceptable that almost three months have gone by… but [we] just can’t make it work.”

The Opposition leader said the NDP isn’t sure if the holdup is a political one or a technical one.

As of Oct. 22, the federal COVID Alert app is enabled in Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Labrador, and Prince Edward Island.

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Click to play video 'COVID-19 contact tracing app launching nationwide' COVID-19 contact tracing app launching nationwide
COVID-19 contact tracing app launching nationwide – Jun 19, 2020

— With a file from the Canadian Press