A Global News investigation into the state of contact tracing during the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic was the topic of discussion during Monday’s question period at the Alberta legislature.
NDP Leader Rachel Notley said that it is important to address areas where the province fell short in managing the pandemic to ensure reopening is not jeopardized.
“One of those areas is contact tracing. The premier and the health minister repeatedly claimed in this house, as early as October 27, that they had 800 contact tracers. Now, thanks to Global News, we have proof this wasn’t true,” she said in the legislature.
“In fact, as cases exploded at the outset of the second wave, the real number was closer to 330. Why was this premier incapable of being honest with Albertans about this issue?”
Documents obtained by Global News through a Freedom of Information request quantify, for the first time, how overwhelmed contact tracers were in November and December, and reveal that the backlog of cases to be traced grew to 23,527 on Dec. 11, 2020; it also uncovered that there were insufficient numbers of contact tracers working during the second wave, including a shortage of 2,020 on Dec. 7, 2020.
The premier, in response to Notley’s question, said that he informs the house based on health department briefings, which he has no reason to believe are inaccurate or untrue.
“I can tell the member that both myself, Minister of Health, emergency management cabinet committee had a very particular focus on expanding contact tracing capacity through the fall into winter,” Kenney said.
At the start of December, AHS President Dr. Verna Yiu said the health authority had more than 900 contact tracers and was aiming to have 1,600 by the end of 2020, though that ultimately did not happen. AHS said it now has approximately 2,500 contact tracers, is able to investigate cases within 24 hours and has investigated more than 2,000 cases on multiple days during the third wave.
Kenney further said that, with case counts falling, there is capacity to do contact tracing; he also said that the provincial government directed Alberta Health during the second wave that cost was not a barrier.
“If anything Mr. Speaker, week after week, pressing Alberta Health to hire more people in the most creative ways possible to maximize the contact tracing capacity,” he said.
Kirsten Fiest, an epidemiologist with the University of Calgary, said the province should have bolstered contact tracing before it found itself in a compromising situation.
“Hiring people earlier and maybe not even needing them would have been a more proactive approach as opposed to a reactive approach, which was waiting until we were overwhelmed to hire more people,” Fiest said.
Health policy expert Lorian Hardcastle, also at the University of Calgary, agreed, saying that from the start of the pandemic, it was clear contact tracing was essential.
“That’s really one of the bare minimum requirements that we would have for an effective public health system, is one where there is contact tracing,” she said.