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COVID-19: Hinshaw says Alberta’s health system making significant progress on contact tracing capacity

WATCH ABOVE: Dr. Deena Hinshaw provided an update on Alberta's response to COVID-19 on Tuesday.

Alberta’s contact-tracing system became overwhelmed late last year when the number of COVID-19  cases began to surge, but the province’s chief medical officer of health says the system’s capacity to do the job has grown considerably since then.

At a news conference in Edmonton on Tuesday, Dr. Deena Hinshaw said that while Alberta Health Services is still hiring more contact tracers, the health authority has “enough capacity in their teams to call all cases within 24 hours of that case being identified in the lab.”

The ability to make those calls within 24 hours appeared to be a major step forward from just two weeks ago, when Hinshaw said the contact-tracing system had improved to the point of being able to make calls “within 24 hours to all high-priority cases of COVID-19.”

READ MORE: Alberta’s contact tracing improving: Hinshaw 

Hinshaw suggested that the contact-tracing efforts have been even more successful lately than numbers would suggest, as the province’s daily numbers showing cases with unknown sources sometimes appears higher than it actually is because of a lag caused by time needed for data entry.

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“So there will always be a proportion of unknowns that show up… on the dashboard,” she said. “It’s also important to remember that because COVID-19 can incubate for up to 14 days, it is sometimes difficult (or) sometimes not possible to identify the source of a particular case, and in those cases, even after that interview has been completed… sometimes despite the best efforts of the individual and that case investigator, it’s not possible to determine where the source was.

“Our next step to is to try to move down to a little more granular data to understand the types of activities where the exposure is happening.”

AHS has had a goal of having 2,000 contact tracers in place and doing the job by February. On Tuesday, the health authority told Global News it had about 1,800 contact tracers in place as of Friday.

“AHS continues to hire and train additional contact tracers,” the health authority said. “Approximately 500 staff completed orientation during the weeks of Jan. 15 and Jan. 22.”

Update on COVID-19 variants in Alberta

Hinshaw said the improvements in the contact-tracing system will be crucial in responding to any potential community transmission of COVID-19 variants in Alberta.

“The benefit we have is the robust work that’s happened to expand our contact-tracing teams,” she said, saying teams can now be quickly be deployed in the event there is a possible case of community transmission of one of the COVID-19 variants.

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“We would be using the teams we have at our disposal — local health professionals, local medical officers of health and those contact-tracing teams — to be able to move very quickly when we see some of those indications.”

Hinshaw noted those teams would then engage in both forward and backward tracing if they are not sure about a source and also initiate aggressive testing protocols to learn more information about potential spread.

“It’s an enhanced version of what we typically do with all COVID(-19) cases but with greater focus and making sure that… we’re very deliberate about that additional testing and focusing on those who have come in contact with those cases.”

Click to play video 'Study on high-transmission COVID-19 variants in Canada' Study on high-transmission COVID-19 variants in Canada
Study on high-transmission COVID-19 variants in Canada – Jan 26, 2021

On Monday, Health Minister Tyler Shandro announced that while an investigation has yet to make a final determination, it appears possible that there may have been community transmission in Alberta of a COVID-19 variant first identified in the U.K.

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READ MORE: U.K. variant of COVID-19 ‘may have entered the broader community’ in Alberta: Shandro 

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“With respect to the first case, there has been a limited amount of household transmission at this point,” Hinshaw said Tuesday. “At this point we don’t have any evidence that it’s spread further beyond the household. We don’t, at this point, have a known travel link but we do continue to investigate.”

As of Monday, Alberta had identified 20 cases of the variant first identified in the U.K. and five cases of the variant first identified in South Africa.

While the province is currently only providing weekly updates on cases involving COVID-19 variants in Alberta, Hinshaw said health officials “will be looking into the needs of Albertans as we go forward” when asked why the updates weren’t being made available daily.

Hinshaw said that while much of the data her team reports on COVID-19 cases is done with the help of automation, “reporting on variant strains is being done manually and a more labour-intensive process.”

“(We) are continually looking to improve,” she said.

Latest COVID-19 numbers in Alberta

Hinshaw said there have been 14 more deaths in Alberta that were linked to COVID-19.

She offered her condolences to the families who have lost loved ones and acknowledged that “this pandemic and the current restrictions make it harder to grieve.”

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Seven deaths were recorded in the Edmonton zone. According to Alberta Health, all cases were linked to outbreaks and all included known comorbidities.

Three deaths were linked to the outbreak at Devonshire Care Centre: a man in his 100s, a woman in her 80s and a man in his 80s.

Elsewhere in the Edmonton zone, a man in his 90s linked to the outbreak at Summerwood Village Retirement Residence, a woman in her 60s who was linked to the Lifestyle Options Schonsee outbreak, a man in his 60s linked to the outbreak at Grand Manor and a woman in her 80s who was linked to the outbreak at Lewis Estates Retirement Residence have died.

There were a total of five deaths reported from the Calgary zone. Of those, three were linked to outbreaks in the region. All three of those cases included known comorbidities.

Two of the deaths were linked to the outbreak at Carewest Colonel Belcher: a man in his 70s and a man in his 90s.

A woman in her 80s who was linked to the AgeCare Sagewood outbreak has also died.

Elsewhere in the Calgary zone, a man and a woman in their 70s have also died. According to Alberta Health, the woman’s case included comorbidities while it’s unknown whether the man had any.

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Two deaths were reported in the North zone. A man in his 60s with unknown comorbidities and a woman in her 60s with known comorbidities have both died.

Hinshaw said the province identified 366 new COVID-19 cases over the past 24 hours. In that same time frame, 8,652 coronavirus tests were administered in Alberta. The province’s test positivity rate was at 4.4 per cent as of Tuesday afternoon, she noted.

As of Tuesday afternoon, 626 people were in hospital with COVID-19 in Alberta with 108 in intensive care units.

Click to play video '366 COVID-19 cases identified Tuesday in Alberta, 14 more deaths linked to disease' 366 COVID-19 cases identified Tuesday in Alberta, 14 more deaths linked to disease
366 COVID-19 cases identified Tuesday in Alberta, 14 more deaths linked to disease – Jan 26, 2021

Hinshaw address abuse hurled at health professionals, misinformation spreading about COVID-19

Hinshaw was asked Tuesday about demonstrators recently showing up to the home of Saskatchewan’s chief medical officer of health to protest public health measures being taken to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus.

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READ MORE: Protest at Saqib Shahab’s home denounced by Saskatchewan Medical Association 

“I heard the report of what happened at my colleague’s house, and it’s very disappointing to see,” she said. As a public health professional and in my role as a servant to the public, I have heard for many months many different opinions from Albertans — some have expressed those opinions in very respectful ways even when they have disagreed and I really appreciate that, because that is the most productive form of dialogue.

“Others have been less respectful and again, that’s not the most productive way of expressing concerns. So what I would encourage all Albertans (to do) as they’re thinking about the current framework, is to recognize the best way forward is to consider how we can further that productive and respectful dialogue.”

Click to play video '‘COVID is the enemy, not one another’: Hinshaw has received reports of ‘abuse’ towards health officials' ‘COVID is the enemy, not one another’: Hinshaw has received reports of ‘abuse’ towards health officials
‘COVID is the enemy, not one another’: Hinshaw has received reports of ‘abuse’ towards health officials – Jan 26, 2021

Hinshaw said while she knows many Albertans are growing tired of public health restrictions and many businesses are struggling to get by during the health crisis, there would be “dire consequences” if restrictions were lifted too early.

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“I wish it were not necessary,” she said. “But we must be cautious.”

Click to play video 'Alberta continues to assess COVID-19 health measures' Alberta continues to assess COVID-19 health measures
Alberta continues to assess COVID-19 health measures – Jan 26, 2021

She added that she has heard of recent instances where health-care workers have been “mistreated, verbally abused or treated disrespectfully while carrying out their duties.”

“Harassment is never OK,” Hinshaw sad. “(We) need to remember that COVID(-19) is the enemy, not one another.”

Hinshaw also urged Albertans to be careful in assessing information about COVID-19 that they come across online before believing it or sharing it further.

READ MORE: New social media campaign targets COVID-19 misinformation with science 

“It can be overwhelming to wade through all the data, stories and opinions out there,” she said, adding that the body of research surrounding the novel coronavirus continues to grow at a rapid pace and sometimes information that may have been relevant months ago may be less relevant or accurate now.

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Hinshaw encouraged people to consider the source of their COVID-19 information and to seek out content provided by or promoted by health experts.

–With files from Global News’ Julia Wong and 630 CHED’s Kirby Bourne

Click to play video 'Hinshaw urges people to verify information they share on COVID-19' Hinshaw urges people to verify information they share on COVID-19
Hinshaw urges people to verify information they share on COVID-19 – Jan 26, 2021

With a file from The Canadian Press.

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