Alberta adds about 800 new COVID-19 cases in 24 hours, changes coming to contact tracing

WATCH ABOVE: Some videos from Dr. Deena Hinshaw's news conference on Thursday.

The province’s chief medical officer of health said Thursday that Alberta has confirmed about 800 new cases of COVID-19  over the past 24 hours and that contact tracers will have to start focusing on priority cases because they can’t keep up.

The approximately 800 new cases set a new daily record for COVID-19 cases in the province.

“Measures we introduced 10 days ago… are not having enough of an effect,” Dr. Deena Hinshaw said at a news conference in Edmonton, adding the increase in cases is “extremely concerning.”

Ten days ago, the province restricted social gatherings in the Edmonton and Calgary zones to 15 people in an attempt to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Hinshaw said she could not provide exact numbers to reporters on Thursday because of technical issues with the pandemic reporting system.

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“The team discovered some internal discrepancies that I felt needed to be addressed,” she said, adding Alberta Health expects to be able to provide exact numbers again on Friday.

Hinshaw voiced concern about the “high proportion of active cases” where people went to work or attended gatherings while they had COVID-19 symptoms.

In Edmonton, she said nine per cent of active cases worked, eight per cent went shopping and eight per cent took part in a social gathering while they were symptomatic.

In Calgary, about 11 per cent of active COVID-19 cases saw people go to work while symptomatic, according to Hinshaw.

“This is significant,” she said, noting that at least 500 people did not stay home while symptomatic.

“You are putting others at risk and potentially spreading the virus.”

READ MORE: Alberta health officials must determine ‘largest factor’ fuelling new COVID-19 cases to slow spread: doctor 

Hinshaw reiterated the importance of employers helping to do all they can to ensure staff don’t come to work while symptomatic.

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Surge in cases leads to changes in contact tracing

Because of the recent surge in cases, Hinshaw said contact tracers are having trouble keeping up.

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“As cases have risen rapidly, we are experiencing challenges in our contact-tracing teams,” she said. “AHS (Alberta Health Services) does not currently have the capacity to call every contact of every case in a timely way.”

As a result, contact tracers are now being asked to focus their efforts on high-priority cases until more can be hired, something she said the province is working on as fast as it can. She said the interim change in approach takes effect immediately.

“Every confirmed case will still get a phone call from AHS to identify whether or not they have a link to a high-priority setting like a continuing care facility, a health-care setting or a school,” Hinshaw added.

“If a case attended a group event like a wedding, a party or a group fitness class while infectious, or if this could have been the source of their infection, the organizer of these events will still be contacted to ensure attendees are notified.”

People with COVID-19 who do not meet the high-priority classification “will be asked to notify their own contact of exposures and the need for them to self-isolate and get tested,” Hinshaw said.

READ MORE: Coronavirus: Edmonton doctor raises contact tracing concerns 

Hinshaw said she does not believe Halloween is yet driving the numbers, noting the province “could see higher numbers in the days ahead” if people did not heed guidance urging them to avoid large gatherings and Halloween parties.

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Potential of new COVID-19 restrictions being discussed

Hinshaw said Thursday that health experts and the government are in discussions about whether new restrictions are necessary to help slow the spread of the coronavirus.

She did not provide a timeline for when new measures may be brought in but said those discussions are looking at how to balance the need to curb the spread of COVID-19 and the impacts of restrictions.

READ MORE: Alberta doctor calls for more restrictions, data as hospital COVID-19 outbreaks and case numbers spike 

Hinshaw was asked by a reporter why no new restrictions were being brought in as cases continue to rise while the province emphasizes personal responsibility for curbing the spread of the coronavirus.

Hinshaw said after the new measures were implemented in Edmonton and Calgary 10 days ago, health officials “did see an impact with respect to slowing the growth rate” and “we want to make sure that Albertans have every opportunity to work with minimal restrictions before putting in place additional ones.”

“Clearly, again, with the numbers we’re seeing today, we have not had the effect that we need to have… The question of timing is really about wanting to be sure that the measures we’re putting in place are balancing the COVID(-19) impacts and the impacts of restrictions but, again, clearly we do have concerning trends and we are needing to consider recommendations for new measures that the government can consider.”

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Hinshaw said there are now nine COVID-19 outbreaks at Alberta hospitals, the most recent being Chinook Regional Hospital in Lethbridge.

READ MORE: COVID-19 outbreak declared at Chinook Regional Hospital 

“Hospitals are still safe,” she explained. “If you need urgent care, do not hesitate to seek it.”

Despite assuring Albertans that hospitals remain safe, Hinshaw said she is “very concerned about the level of hospitalizations for COVID(-19) in Edmonton and Calgary.

“We must protect our health system by reducing community transmission,” she said.

“In about seven to 10 days from now, our hospital rates will rise further, which means that care for Albertans with other issues besides COVID(-19) will be impacted.”