Coronavirus: Alberta to address contact tracing delays with new online portal

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WATCH ABOVE: Alberta is facing a backlog when it comes to contact tracing COVID-19 cases. Now the province says it has a solution to the issue. Adam MacVicar reports. – Nov 12, 2020

In an effort to reduce delays in contact tracing, Alberta health officials have introduced a new online portal for people to identify close contacts after they have tested positive for COVID-19.

The COVID-19 Close Contact Tool, which is now in use, requires people who have tested positive to enter information, including phone numbers of known close contacts.

According to Alberta Health Services, the information will be reviewed by the contact tracing team and a text message will be sent to all close contacts provided.

The text message will let close contacts know of their exposure and include information on 14-day isolation, testing options, symptoms and supports available, AHS officials said.

“This process will be completely anonymous — the name of the positive case will not be disclosed in the text message,” Alberta’s chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw said.

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“It will, however, help increase our capacity and speed in this notification process.”

Read more: New restrictions announced for Alberta as 860 COVID-19 cases, 10 deaths reported Thursday

AHS said school-related contacts will continue to receive notification from AHS by email, while workplaces and organizers of events with 10 or more attendees will also still be required to notify the appropriate staff and attendees.

According to medical experts, the rising number of COVID-19 cases in Alberta has put significant strain on the province’s contact tracing team, and has created significant delays.

Jo-Anna Rooney, whose teenaged son has been declared a close contact twice in as many months, said she has been frustrated by the delays.

According to Rooney, both times that her son was declared a close contact, they were not notified until several days after the initial exposure.

“The first one was 10 days late, so our son had to isolate for only four days,” Rooney said. “This most recent one, we were notified (Wednesday) of a close contact, and his isolation is finished (Friday).

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“About 12 days of him out and about in the world, and we didn’t know he was a close contact; it’s unnerving.”

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Alberta Health said that its public health teams have been working around the clock to try and limit the spread of COVID-19.

According to health officials, more than 43,000 Albertans were notified by the province’s contact tracing team of potential exposures to the coronavirus between Nov. 6 and 9.

AHS said it is also hiring 425 new positions to expand the contact tracing team to more than 1,100 contact tracers within the next few weeks.

“Unfortunately, in a matter of one or two weeks, the cases have really picked up, but the ability to efficiently on-board and train new contact tracers is simply not that fast,” said Dr. Craig Jenne, an associate professor of microbiology, immunology and infectiouss diseases at the University of Calgary.

“Right now, the virus is outpacing our human ability to put the resources in place to efficiently contact trace.”

Read more: Premier Jason Kenney tests negative for COVID-19 after close contact with positive case

On Nov. 5, AHS announced contact tracers would temporarily be shifted to focus their efforts on high-priority cases until more could be hired.

In the interim, 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 at the time.

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According to Jenne, the additional contact tracing staff will help with detecting the spread of the virus in the province, but contact tracing won’t help for the large increase in cases with no traceable source.

“There’s a significant number of anonymous transmission and those can be, for example, riding public transit; you have no idea who is riding on that bus with you,” he said.

“No matter how many people we have on hand, we will not be able to contact those individuals and notify them of potential exposure or the need to self-isolate because we don’t know who they are.”

Jenne said the anonymous spread points to the need for contact tracing apps, similar to the ABTraceTogether app.

However, recent research by software engineer Mathieu Fenniak has identified potential concerns with the app.

According to Fenniak, research using several types of phones showed inconsistent exposure between devices.

“I’m very confident from this that the iPhones don’t talk to each other in the background,” he said. “iPhone to Andriod isn’t working quite as reliably as one might expect for the purpose of contact tracing.”

Read more: ‘We must do better’: Notley criticizes Alberta government’s COVID-19 response

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The provincial government disagreed with Fenniak’s findings and said a fix was discovered in Singapore and the U.K. to allow ABTraceTogether to run in the background on several devices.

“The government of Alberta is continuing to use the ABTraceTogether app as it links directly to our contact-tracing system, so it’s the best tool of its kind to help contain the pandemic,” health ministry spokesperson Steve Buick said in a statement.

“We are asking our developer to review the ‘test’ that was conducted to identify if it is accurate or if additional improvements can be made.”

According to AHS, a close contact is defined as anyone who “was within two metres of a positive case of COVID-19 for 15 minutes or more of contact, without consistent and appropriate use of personal protective equipment.”

A close contact is also defined as someone “who has had direct contact with bodily fluids of a person who has COVID-19 (e.g., was coughed or sneezed on) or who provided direct care for a person who has COVID-19, without consistent and appropriate use of PPE.”

Sports teams that have seen close, sustained or intermittent and repeated contact with a positive case of COVID-19 require all members of the teams playing each other to be considered close contacts.

“Efficient identification and notification of close contacts of COVID-19 remains critical to Alberta’s fight against COVID-19,” AHS said in a statement.

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“Rapid notification of close contacts ensures that those exposed can isolate and get tested before potentially spreading disease to others.”

–With files from Global News’ Phil Heidenreich