Dr. Deena Hinshaw stressed the importance of Alberta’s contact tracing process in stopping the spread of COVID-19 Wednesday, after health officials have reported a “concerning rise” in the number of people who have been unwilling to participate in the “essential” tool.
Hinshaw said in December, less one per cent of Albertans who either tested positive or were deemed a close contact, refused to answer the phone or respond to messages from contact tracers.
“Since then, we’ve seen a concerning rise in those we can’t get ahold of; 1.9 per cent of all cases in January and 1.3 per cent so far in February,” Hinshaw said.
There’s also been an increase in the number of people who, at first, are cooperative with contact tracers, but eventually refuse to give the necessary information needed so contact tracers can then follow up with their possible contacts.
The contact tracers then have to follow up with phone calls and send written notice to the individuals, notifying them of the information Alberta Health needs, under the Public Health Act.
“This leaves gaps that COVID is happy to fill,” Hinshaw said.
“It may be tempting to think that not providing information will make COVID go away. Unfortunately, the opposite is true.
“Trying to ignore COVID and not participating with contact tracing only pushes back the day we can ease restrictions further by giving the virus opportunity to spread farther and faster without being stopped.”
She said contact tracing remains an essential part of Alberta’s COVID-19 response, and it “relies on a partnership with Albertans who test positive or who have been exposed.”
Hinshaw said Albertans can expect an update “in the coming days” on the work Alberta Health has been doing to increase its contact tracing capacity, which started in the fall.
Complacency is also a risk factor health officials are watching for, particularly as cases of the U.K. and South African variants are being confirmed across the province and country, and as businesses open back up.
“It’s important that we continue to remind people and ourselves and each other of the fact that it’s only because we are following these rules and these measures that are in place that we are able to move forward with these easings of restrictions,” Hinshaw said.
“We have to continue to be vigilant and we can’t let complacency get in the way.”
Hinshaw said if officials do see people slipping in their compliance with health measures, it could mean restrictions are re-imposed, rather than loosened more.
She said experts are looking at three leading indicators when it comes to making a call about whether to pause or reverse the current plan to ease restrictions: the R value, the positivity rate and the number of new infections, along with the absolute hospital metrics.
Hinshaw said the province doesn’t have a benchmark set for those three indicators that would prompt either a pause or reversal of the current plans.
Hinshaw reported 277 new COVID-19 infections over the last 24 hours, from 7,500 tests, putting the province’s positivity rate at 3.9 per cent. As of Wednesday, 370 people were being treated in hospital, with 60 of them in intensive care units.
Hinshaw said hospitalizations have plateaued in the last few days, which should serve as “a reminder that we must continue to protect the health system.”
Seven more deaths from COVID-19 were reported to Alberta Health in the last 24 hours, bringing the total number of pandemic-related fatalities to 1,798.
Two people connected to the outbreak at Dr. Gerald Zetter Care Centre in the Edmonton zone died: a woman in her 90s and a woman in her 100s. Both their cases included comorbidities.
Also in the Edmonton zone, a woman in her 90s whose case was linked to the CapitalCare Lynnwood outbreak died. Her case included comorbidities.
Two women in their 80s, neither of whom were connected to outbreaks, died. Both cases included comorbidities.
A woman who contracted COVID-19 as part of the Bonnyville Extendicare outbreak in the North zone died. Her case included comorbidities.
And in the South zone, a woman in her 90s whose case was linked to the outbreak at The View at Lethbridge, and whose case had comorbidities, died.
More than 56,500 Albertans were fully immunized with two doses of vaccine as of Wednesday, and roughly 152,000 doses in total had been administered across the province.
The province has yet to release details about its next phase of vaccination, citing slow federal procurement. Meanwhile, groups across the province are advocating for those like first responders, meat plant workers and people dealing with homelessness, and those who help them, to be prioritized.