Alberta’s shift to relying on people to get in touch with their own close contacts if they test positive for COVID-19 could set the province back “quite a bit in being able to control the pandemic,” according to one infectious disease expert.
Chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw announced on Thursday that contact tracers are unable to keep up with the sharp rise in cases in the province, and therefore contact tracing is being focused on cases linked to high-priority settings, such as a schools, health-care facilities or group events.
Outside of those high-priority settings, people will be responsible for letting their own close contacts know they’ve tested positive for COVID-19 and should self-isolate and get tested.
“With this gap, we are actually further losing the ability to pinpoint where the hotspots are, where the transmission is happening,” Dr. Lynora Saxinger said Friday.
“It makes it much harder to target restrictions to the needed areas because there’s this big huge unknown of where is the transmission occurring, where are the places that we need to focus on in terms of intervention.”
According to Hinshaw, every positive case will still get a call from an Alberta contact tracer, who will then work to determine how they were exposed and where they may have gone while infectious.
Laxinger said the “good faith attempt to do some tracing” while Alberta Health Service works to bolster its current 800-person contact tracing team to have more than 1,100 members isn’t the first time this kind of tracing has been done — but said it’s been met with mixed results.
“I don’t think any of us think this would be as good as having a contact tracer do it, but I actually do think people will be willing to do this and comply with it and I hope that that will actually assist somewhat, at least, during this shortfall,” she said.
“Because it’s really crucial that we get people who have been exposed quarantining themselves.”
She said people being gracious and understanding, rather than stigmatizing anyone who has to make that call, will be essential to the system being successful.
She also said people taking time to understand the severity of the province’s case numbers and hospitalizations might make making those difficult phone calls easier.
When asked about whether officials were worried about there being less trust and honesty as people contact their own close contacts, Alberta Health would only say the new system is an “interim measure until more contact tracers can be hired and trained as soon as possible.”
Hinshaw advised people to also download the AB TraceTogether app, with Kenney reiterating the province wouldn’t be adopting the federal COVID-19 app anytime soon.
Hinshaw said if an infected person has the app and so do their contacts, the app will notify their contacts for them.
According to Alberta Health, the average positive case has about 15 close contacts that need to be investigated.
Contact tracing breakdown could lead to further restrictions
Saxinger said because the interim contact tracing system will make it harder for officials to determine where transmission is happening in the community, it could land the province in a position of needing more restrictions down the road.
“It makes it a lot more likely that we would either, in the short-term, medium- or long-term, need a much broader restrictive intervention like a lockdown.”
Saxinger said if wider restrictions are going to be implemented, the timing of that is crucial.
“If that is going to be highly effective it’s better to do it earlier rather than later,” Saxinger said.
“This basically puts us in a more risky position in terms of flying blind at a time when things are really not going in the right direction.”
Alberta Health did not answer questions about whether the new contact tracing system would have a negative impact on officials’ ability to determine where COVID-19 infections are happening and how they’re spreading.